Chemistry of Love
At 64 years of experience, and a domestic violence counselor to boot, I have heard many stories from fellow humans about their pain.
We humans can feel hurt or we can hurt others, and if we are not taught something about the structure of our brains, the trajectory of our emotions and cognitions, the road map that grief or forgiveness or reconciliation or stress management or mindfulness or HeartMath heart rate variability biofeedback or the structure of our brain (role of limbic system, for example) follow, we can repeat behaviors which lead us right back into the same old same old pain.
And much of that pain revolves around mistakes in the area of experience called 'love'.
Perhaps there is help coming though, because technology is helping us observe love real time. We are learning that the chemistry (read chemicals, molecules) of love is a functional pattern of human behavior, with a road map and bench marks; we are learning that we humans can observe the process within ourselves and manage it more effectively, with less pain, and less violence.
The tool is fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, which Helen Fisher, Ph.D. is using to observe 'in love' brains in real time. (She is also looking at brain which have been dumped too, and observing the brain activity that happens as those brains think of being left behind. What ramifications for stalking are about to be discovered?)
What Dr. Fisher is finding is that the experience of love is a chemical or molecular experience, which lights up certain areas of our brains during one of the three discernible stages of love.
The chemicals involved in the initial stage? According to Dr. Susan Block,
"Falling in love floods your bloodstream with a fricassee of powerful chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine (PEA) and other natural cousins of amphetamines, stimulants and painkillers."
[Amphetamines, stimulants, and painkillers? Sounds like a good high to me].
Dr. Block agrees.
"Yes, falling in love is like being on drugs. Hard drugs. It's a natural high far finer and smoother than anything you could inject, smoke, snort, drink or swallow. Of course, love isn't something you can pick up at the pharmacy or even on the black market. It strikes you like a mystical gift from God, or a practical joke from tricky, fickle old Hot Mama Nature. Then it stirs up that euphoric, love-juicy chemical goo that permeates your cells, creating a place within you where hormones meet holiness, wildflowers bloom, angels dance, and the city never sleeps."
"To differentiate it from long-term love, I call this marvelous, giddy, speedy, slightly insane, falling-in-love feeling "Hot Love." Hot Love is the supernova of affection, but like the song sings, it's just too hot not to cool down."
"After a while, your body builds up a tolerance to the PEA and other sizzling chemicals. Inevitably, the feeling fades. And you wonder (as the two of you go to bed yet again without coupling madly like you used to), where is the passion? Where has love gone?"
"It's a sad, sad, universal story. But don't despair! All is not lost, chemically speaking. If your relationship continues past the Hot Love stage, another set of chemicals flows into your bloodstream. These are opiate-like endorphins and sweet-feeling oxytocin that sensitize your nerves, stimulate muscle contraction, enhance orgasm and make cuddling feel absolutely divine. I call this stage "Warm Love," as it brings on that nice, warm sense of well-being you get when you're really comfortable with someone."
Dr. Block seems to write as if she is in hot passionate love, and she does lay out the hormonal bath very well.
Dr. Block also addresses the issue of how to remember those "hot love' moments after moving into the warm love phase, just because you can.
As a brain fitness expert, and an anger management and domestic violence educator, I use the tool she alludes to in my sessions all the time.
I ask my clients to remember a positive, fun time and tell me how they feel, and then remember an unpleasant time and tell me how they feel. I then ask them to switch back and forth several times until they get that the memories, (or thoughts in this case), are what bring the changes in feelings.
It seems to me that Dr. Block is also taking advantage of another new discovery, brain maps. All of the skills I have, like keyboard typing for example, are stored across several areas of the brain, in the keyboard typing example, those memories are in the brain maps for my fingers in the sensory motor cortex. I bet the brain maps for massage are there also.
But what I am most curious about is how that first blast of "hot love" chemistry gets started.
What is it that I perceive that starts the chemistry of love? There seems to be evidence of pheromone involvement which involves the sense of smell, and is oxytocin communicated by smell, and what nonverbals do I see in a glance or hear in a voice or what chemicals do I taste in a kiss? (Testosterone?)
What is communicated in the old adage of "Love at first sight" that starts the flow of chemistry of love in my brain?
Dr. Helen Fisher says that we can take some of the guess work out of the love at first site process by using online dating services which build profiles and look for partners with matching psychological, sociological, and neourochemical profiles.
(Speaking for myself, I am grateful that she says that even while we may quantify the brain locations and brain maps and neurochemistry of 'hot love', that will not take the passion away.)
So what is involved in that first perception, that love at first sight experience?
From Dr. Fisher, speaking to
Question-So you would probably say that romantic love evolved in human beings, right? How did that happen? Why do we love?
Answer-I think that the precursor of romantic love, animal attraction, evolved long before human beings—to enable all mammals to focus their mating energy on specific partners, thereby conserving courtship time and energy.
In fact, many became attracted immediately – the forerunner of love-at-first sight.
But I think this brain system became much more elaborate after our first forbearers descended from the tress of Africa some 4 million years ago.
With the evolution of pair bonding and male/female attachment, both men and women began to develop a more complex system for choosing a mate: romantic love.
Then, the courtship process became even more intense (probably about 2 million years ago) and the brain circuitry for romantic love took its modern form.
Why do we love? I think romantic love evolved for many Darwinian purposes. Children who fall in love are practicing for life's greatest challenge, choosing an appropriate mating partner. Those of reproductive age fall in love to start a breeding partnership.
People who divorce and fall in love again are beginning yet another potentially reproductive relationship. And older folks who fall in love have found a kindred spirit with whom to share the problems (and joys) of aging.
In fact, we were probably designed to fall in love with more than one person during our lives, largely so that we would bear children with several partners and thereby increase genetic variety in our lineage.
Question-Why do we choose one person rather than another?
Answer-Why him? Why her? There are many, many forces that play a role in who we fall in love with.
Timing is important; you tend to fall in love when you are ready, particularly when you are lonely.
Proximity is often crucial; we fall for people who we interact with.
Both men and women are excited by individuals they regard as mysterious.
And most fall in love with someone of the same ethnic, social, religious, educational and economic background and with a similar amount of physical attractiveness, a comparable intelligence and parallel attitudes, expectations, values and interests. We gravitate to people like ourselves.
But most important is your “love map.” We grow up in a sea of experiences that sculpt our romantic choices. Our mother's sense of humor; our father's interest in politics and music; how those around us view honor, justice, loyalty and politeness: thousands of subtle forces build our individual interests, values and beliefs. So by the teenage years, each of us has constructed an unconscious catalogue of aptitudes and mannerisms we are looking for in a mate. Then when we meet someone who fits within this “love map” and they begin to flirt, the interaction may trigger the brain chemistry of romance and we fall head over heels in love."
What are flirting behaviors?
I know that when I read Allen Schores' work on attachment, he talks about some recognizable signals that attachment is proceeding apace.
Schore talks about the foveal glint in the eyes of the child, and the fact that the pupils are dilated in interactions with the parent, which are signals that the attachemnt process is successfully happening right now.
Those attachment processes that Schore is talking about are part of the brain map that Dr. Fisher alludes to which is what we are evaluating potential mates from when they begin the flirting process, and the flood of love chemistry hits us.
But what are flirting behaviors? And how do I recognize them accurately?
One persons flirting is another person's sexual harrassement.
I know that as a young man, I could sense the difference between a glance from a woman that had a more sexual overlay very easily, and I was also very surprised when my mother confronted me on the way I looked at women as we walked together across my undergraduate campus when I was fully young and virile. Apparently I was sending a message that seemed more intense to her than I was aware, because I did not intend to follow up with my overt glance.
So we are back to what is it that signals to me to start that chemistry of love?
And does brain fitness impact the chemistry of love, or at least evaluating the consequences of acting on the chemistry of love?
Very early in my personal growth experience, a wise person taught me to use the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was resentful or afraid and that phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
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