The Science of Love





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Why We Love, The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, by Helen Fisher is an incredibly intriguing look at the chemistry of romantic love.

At first blush, her title is a bit frightening. Where is there passion, rapture, desire, whimsy, poetry in 'chemistry' the way there are those things for a lover?

If we reduce love to fMRI pictures of brains, have we not reduced a most powerful human experience to something dry and lifeless?

And what will happen to the poets and artists and novelists, and marriage counselors, for that matter, if romantic love is reduced to brain scan activity levels?

And how could Ms. Fisher become involved with a website called Chemistry.com which is about eliminating some of the guess work in the mate picking process?

Maybe there is more to what Ms. Fisher's work has uncovered than two dimensional fMRI images.

I am curious about Ms. Fisher's work because I work with perpatrators of domestic violence, and I want the best possible information for my clients.

I want to teach them about how to succeed at relationships, and if becoming aware of how the human brain does relationship helps then I want to teach that model to my clients.

One of my earliest mentors in the counseling field, Liz Ann Corbett, told me that I need to teach my clients the "road map' first, and then do the counseling itself, because once clients get a sense that there is a rhyme and reason to their experience, they will begin to recognize where they are, and when that happens, they feel more secure.

There is a roadmap to grieving, forgiveness, reconciliation, sobriety, managing your moods, even "flow' or peak performance.

That is why I have used the John Gottman model of relationship called "The Art and Science of Love", because there is a workbook and steps for clients. There is a model of angry flooding, for example, based on his physiological studies at the Gottman "Love Lab" and steps to take to relax.

The Science of Love-The Helen Fisher Model

Dr. Fisher speaks to three kinds of love. In her words, from Why We Love-The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, 2-4-04;

"What first drew you to the subject of romantic love?

I think romantic love is one of the most powerfully motivating forces on earth. But also because I have come to think that romantic love is one of three basic brain circuits that humanity evolved for mating and reproduction: the sex drive -- the craving for sexual gratification, evolved to get you out there looking for anyone; Romantic love -- the elation and obsessive thinking that happens when you first fall in love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual, thereby conserving courtship time and energy; and attachment -- that feeling of calm and security you can feel with a long term partner, evolved to enable you to tolerate this individual at least long enough to rear a child together. Because romantic love, I think, is the most powerful, the most beguiling, and the most memorable, I wanted to know its chemical basis and what this euphoria was all about."

[The chemical basis for both parties in the first stage is testosterone.]

"Can you briefly describe how you conducted your study to find out the chemistry of romantic love?"

"Well, I wanted to put people who were madly in love into a brain scanner to see if I could find out which parts of the brain become active when someone feels romantic passion. My plan was to have them lie in the machine and look at two photographs, a photo of their beloved and a photo of a familiar but neutral individual who caused no strong emotion in them of any kind. Then I would compare what happened in the brain under both conditions."

"But of course it is hard to STOP thinking about a sweetheart. And I needed to cleanse the brain of all romantic feelings before each subject looked at the neutral photo. So between looking at these two photos, I decided to have our subjects mentally count backwards from a large number, like 8421, in increments of seven. This really cleans the brain of all emotion! Then we compared what happened in the brain under all these conditions."

"In the end, my colleagues and I scanned 144 pictures of each of the 10 women and 7 men who were newly, wildly in love -- and found some of the brain regions that become active when you feel intense romantic passion."

"What did this brain activity tell you about romantic love?"

"What we learned was truly thrilling and revealing. I had thought romantic love was a whole constellation of emotions. But we were able to determine that it is actually a drive, a basic mating drive."

"We found activity in two very primitive brain regions, the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus. Both are part of the brain's “reward system” and are associated with focused attention and the motivation to win a reward. In fact, we discovered that dopamine, a powerful stimulant in the brain, is most likely central to the feeling of romantic love. And I suspect that we will someday discover that high levels of norepinephrine and low levels of serotonin are also involved."

"So I came to think that romantic love is a drive, an instinct as powerful as hunger. Then we tack on various emotions, depending on how we feel. When things are going well, we feel elation, hope and other joyous feelings; when things go poorly, we feel horrible sorrow instead. But we always feel that intense craving, the urge, the instinct, the drive to win our beloved."

"Interestingly, we also found activity in a brain region associated with the eating of chocolate, which made me begin to think that romantic love was an addiction."

[The chemicals involved at the attraction stage are; Attraction is marked by high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (also activated by cocaine and nicotine), norepinehprine (adrenaline), the heart-pumping hormone used to respond to emergencies, and low levels of serotonin, another major neurotransmitter.]

That dark chocolate paragraph would seem to say that romantic love is an addiction, but I think Dr. Fisher means to say that it activates brain centers involved in addiction.

Although thinking back to some of my teenage crushes, perhaps addiction is an appropriate word.

And I am really looking forward to exploring Dr. Fisher's work in regards to domestic violence.

In particular the old cycle of violence, "build-up, blow-up, make-up", if it were scanned in an fMRI machine might show interesting parallels to romantic love.

Is Love a Chemical Affair?

And it's helped probe the way love changes with time. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies love at Rutgers University, sees three phases to the process:

1. Lust: the craze for sex. "Lust evolved to get you out looking for anything," she says. 2. Attraction: the stage of emotional involvement. When attraction goes right, Fisher says, "You're romantic, passionate, elated, giddy, euphoric." 3. Attachment: attraction may evolve into a long-term relationship marked by calm, peace and security. (Okay, it's a bit idealized, but we hope you get the picture).

Curiously, different chemical processes are involved at each stage:

Lust responds mainly -- in both sexes -- to testosterone, the "male" hormone.

Attraction is marked by high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (also activated by cocaine and nicotine), norepinehprine (adrenaline), the heart-pumping hormone used to respond to emergencies, and low levels of serotonin, another major neurotransmitter.

Attachment is associated with oxytocin, a hormone released during childbirth and nursing, and vasopressin, or anti-diuresis hormone. Vasopressin slows the formation of urine, and at high levels, increases pressure in certain blood vessels.

When it comes to love, no-one gets out alive!

Granted, it's enjoyable, but the attraction phase cannot last forever.

If you are curious about taking the guesswork out of your creating your next romantic love, and you want to follow the Helen Fisher model, then click on the link below to activate the most appropriate parts of your brain at the most appropriate time.

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