Explaining the Chemistry of LoveBy Sam Johnson
Monday is Valentine's Day.
As a result, more people will profess their
love for one another this weekend than during any other time throughout the year.
A great amount of money will be spent on cards, flowers, candy, dinner and
gifts as a means of expressing this love.
Yet for all the love talk that goes on,
the emotion we call love is one of the least understood. Poets have tried to
express and explain love since the beginning of time, but not until recently
have experts begun to fully understand what makes up the emotion we call love.
Over the past decade, scientists and
researchers have been busy conducting experiments and surveys to try and
discover the true meaning of love. Their results are beginning to explain this
mysterious emotion, but even they disagree as to what actually causes love.
"It sounds funny to be so precise
about something as vague as love," says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist
now at Stony Brook University, "but that's just the point. We have been
able to ascertain certain qualities of love, and we are getting closer to
understanding the causes of it."
The mounds of data compiled by these researchers
seem to indicate a physiological as well as a psychological basis for the
emotion called love.
The Chemistry of Love
scientists, the lofty emotion of love lauded by poets is actually caused by the
release of certain chemicals in the brain.
According to Dr. Jacqueline Crawley, Chief
of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurosciences at the National Institute of
Mental Health, the body responds to a cue for love in the same fashion it
responds when confronted with a bear in a forest.
The theory is that when we see the object
of our love, our eyes send a message to the brain which calls for the release
of a chemical associated with arousal (ACTH). The chemical passes through our
bloodstream to the adrenal glands which releases hormones causing the symptoms
of "love" -- blushing, rapid heart beat, heavy breathing, sweating.
Evidence also suggests that emotions such
as grief, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and even exercise or unexpected surprises
can deepen the passion, and that people can actually become addicted to the
chemical high produced in these ways.
A person can literally become
"addicted to love."
The Root of Love
According to another set of researchers,
primarily psychologists such as Cynthia Hazen, a social psychologist now at
Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, the basis of love is not caused
by our chemistry, but by our family; specifically, the relationships a person
has growing up with his or her parents.
Hazen has developed three categories to
explain our love lives:
1). The "secure
attachment" in which it is easy to love someone.
2). The "avoidance
attachment" which is a fear of allowing anyone to get too close.
3). The "anxious
attachment" whereby a person wants to cling to or merge with the loved
The researchers found that people falling
in these categories tend to show similar family traits and backgrounds.
Avoidant lovers had mothers who were demanding but weak, and fathers who
weren't caring or loving. Anxious lovers had mothers who were intrusive, and
demanding fathers. Secure lovers had healthier relationships with their
Chains of Love
And yet a third theory of love espoused by
a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, Ellen Berscheid, finds
that passionate or romantic love stems from a break in the "chain of behaviors"
we exhibit around our loved ones.
This theory states that we tend to follow
a set routine of patterned behaviors around the person we love, and that intense
emotion comes within the relationship from an interruption to one of the
patterns of behaviors ("chains" as she calls them).
Examples would include being surprised one
morning with breakfast in bed, unexpectedly receiving a gift of flowers, going
away for the weekend.
According to Berscheid, "The
closeness of a relationship is essentially the extent to which one partner can
intervene in the other's chains, either helping or hindering."
The romance or marriage tends to go sour,
says Berscheid, when the novelties either stop, or they stop being novelties
and become routine instead.
Despite the differences between these
theories of love, the research does show a couple things in common. First, that love is an essential human
emotion -- both the capacity to feel love and to give love. As the poet said, "To love is to be
useful to yourself, to cause love is to be useful to others." And secondly, they indicate that love is
enhanced and deepened by unexpected surprises we give to those we love, whether
it be a material gift, or an act of kindness. "As you give love, you will have
love" wrote Tennyson.
Finally, if love is to deepen, these
things must happen throughout the year, not just on February 14th.
Now that's something to think about!
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