Love: Is it in the heart or the head?

Mid Week Geek Peek #3

Bird Love

We are not in it alone. Even birds sometimes don’t want to see each others face.

Have you ever wondered why you feel attracted to one person while in love with someone else? Questioned if then the love was true love? Or worse, get distraught when the passion wanes and ask if it was love in the first place? In fact why do we love at all?

Well, I have… asked these questions. For a long time I just tried to find the answers through polite conversations with the demons in my head. That never helps, the polite conversations, right? But “when the student is ready, the teacher does appear.” So Helen Fisher appeared, in eBook format.

In her book “Why We Love”, Helen Fisher clinically dissects ‘love’ as we know it (or don’t know it), helping me quieten the demons (at least some of them), in my head…and I suspect in many other heads too.

She starts her conversation by listing the symptoms of love. (Yeah! like we need a doctor to diagnose matters of the heart). But I guess she had to start somewhere. She explains that ‘romantic love’ is a universal feeling produced by specific chemicals and networks in the brain’. For the geeks out there:

  • Dopamine – Elevated levels of dopamine in the brain produce extremely focussed attention as well as unwavering motivation and goal directed behaviours. These are central characteristics of romantic love – they intensely focus on the beloved, almost to the point of excluding all else, focus on positive qualities, ignore negative.
  • Norepinephrine’s High – A chemical derived from dopamine, may also contribute to a lover’s high. Increasing levels of this stimulant generally produce exhilaration, excessive energy, sleeplessness and loss of appetite – some of the basic characteristics of love. This could also explain why the lover can remember the smallest details of the beloved’s actions and cherished moments spent together.
  • Serotonin – Lover’s persistent, involuntary, irresistible ruminations about a sweetheart may be associated with low level of some type of serotonin. (Obsessive thinking)

But what’s the point in getting all geeky (apart from showing off!). The point being that because the passion emanates from these chemicals, primarily dopamine, motivation and goal oriented behaviour are involved.

Which in simple Klingon means… romantic love is a primary motivation system in the brain – in short, fundamental human mating drive. And like drives –

  • Romantic attraction is tenacious; it is very difficult to extinguish. Emotions on the other hand, come and go, you can be happy in the morning and angry in the afternoon.
  • Romantic love is focussed on a specific reward, the beloved, in the same way hunger is focussed on food.
  • Romantic love is a need, a craving. We need food. We need water. We need warmth. And the lover feels he/she needs the beloved.

So we (broadly) know ‘why we love’ But why does it get so complicated?

She simplifies it by breaking up this ‘mating drive’ into 3 categories –

  1. Lust (craving for sexual gratification) – Lust evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with almost any semi-appropriate partner.
  2. Romantic love – Romantic love emerged to drive men and women to focus their mating attention on a preferred individual, thereby preserving invaluable courtship time and energy. Pair bonding also became essential to raise the off springs resulting in monogamy. They stayed together for 4 years to raise child to infancy, then parted to bear off springs with different partners, which is also probably the evolution of divorce.
  3. Attachment (the feeling of calm, security, and union with a long term partner) – Love changes over time. It becomes deeper, calmer. No longer couples talk all day or ‘dance all night’. The mad passion, the ecstasy, the longing, the obsessive thinking, the heightened energy: all dissolve. But if you’re fortunate, this magic transforms itself into new feelings of security, comfort, calm and union with your partner. There’s a Brazilian saying “Love is born in a glance and matures in a smile”

She agrees however that it may not be that ‘simple’ a relationship. The fact that lust, romantic love and attachment can ignite in any combination makes it ‘It’s complicated’ (and fun?). She says

‘Many of us have periods in our lives when these three mating drives do not focus on the same person. It seems to be the destiny of humankind that we are neurologically able to love more than one person at a time. You can feel profound attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic passion for someone in the office or your social circle, while you feel the sex drive while you read a book, watch a movie or do something else unrelated to either partner. You can even swing from one feeling to another.’

Yup. That spells fun!

But don’t get all excited people. This doesn’t give you the license for polyamory. Even though polyamory seems logically utopian, she argues that it is impractical – “humankind does not share love gracefully. ‘We are jealous people’ Polyamorous couples not surprisingly spend many hours every week sorting out their feelings of possessiveness and jealousy.”

What’s the solution then for happily ever after?

How do you ignite mad romantic passion in another and sustain it? Especially when nature had designed not a 7 year itch but a 4 year itch?

Helen Fisher’s fundamental tip for ‘forever after’ is to do novel things together. Adventurous stuff increases adrenalin – increases dopamine – increases passion. If your relationship needs a prescription or if you’re simply curious, read her book for other possible solutions for ‘everlasting love’ or simply just to understand this cruelly beautiful emotion that seemingly cannot be tamed.

I on the other hand don’t think there is any universal solution. Each individual and each individual couple needs to explore for themselves what works with all honesty, ‘wanting’ to be together but not ‘needing’ to be together. If anything, explore the possibility of a ‘higher state of love without expectations in the spiritual realm of things’

But then what do I know? Why don’t you share what’s worked for you to keep the magic alive in a not so fairy tale world where the beast may not become a prince.

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