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The Love Drug

I mentioned in the post on kissing that love is very much like an addiction.  Robert Palmer’s hit song “Addicted to Love” paints a vivid picture:

Your lights are on, but you’re not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another kiss is what it takes

You can’t sleep, you can’t eat
There’s no doubt, you’re in deep
Your throat is tight, you cant breathe
Another kiss is all you need

Haven’t all of us experienced this sensation to some degree or another?  We’ve known intuitively for a long time that both falling in and out of love can cause serious physical symptoms.  Until very recently, the only explanation that we could give was that love was “magic,” or “mysterious.”  Frank Sinatra blamed it on “That Old Devil Moon.”  Santana blamed it on black magic.  “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” was how Rogers and Hart described someone in love.  Our literature and music is overflowing with metaphors for the magic of love.

Today, thanks to new scientific technology (most notably, the fMRI) we are beginning to unravel the mystery.  Of course, love isn’t magic.  It’s as biological (and therefore evolutionary) as anything else we as humans experience.  In fact, we’re even beginning to suspect strongly that humans are not the only animal to experience love.  There are some people who may be threatened by this.  Love, they will say, ought to remain a mystery, for it is the pinnacle of human experience — the purpose for living.  Reducing it to equations and chemicals will take the magic out of life.   Of course, this argument is as nonsensical as saying that we ought not study literature, for knowledge would ruin the experience of a great novel.  As in all things, more knowledge only adds to the experience.   Just as a trained literary expert can derive great pleasure from both the “surface” level of a book and the more intricate and obscure devices and references, a person well versed in the science of love can experience it on the intuitive level while marvelling at the science behind the experience.

For those of us brave enough to look in the mirror and believe what we see, there is exciting progress being made.  A team of scientists working out of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York has isolated four regions of the brain that are being referred to by some as a “circuit of love.”  The ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum and the raphe nucleus all appear to work together to literally get us addicted to someone.

Of these, perhaps the most important is the VTA, which is part of the reward center of our brain, and plays a crucial role in the production and distribution of dopamine, the main chemical component to the love addiction.   In both brand new couples and long term partners still in love, the VTA lights up like a Christmas tree when subjects are shown pictures of their beloved.  It’s our own private drug dealer.

Dopamine, it turns out, really is addictive.  When scientists studied the brains of people who had recently broken up with their lovers, they discovered the same brain activity seen in cocaine addicts suffering withdrawal.  The nucleus accumbens is strongly associated with addiction, and this is the part of the brain that lights up when we are craving our particular drug — and when we are longing for our lover.

Fortunately, love addiction is not all bad.  The raphe nucleus and ventral pallidum are both involved in the production of chemicals that reduce stress and cause a feeling of contentment and calm.  When things are going well, we get our dopamine high, but we also get a base level happiness and a feeling like everything is ok in the world.  The four brain areas are working in conjunction to encourage us to stay together with the one we love.*

Of course, that’s not all there is to it.  Oxytocin and vasopressin also play key roles in our love addiction.  Oxytocin seems to be the primary cause of bonding in females.  It is released in vast quantities during childbirth, and seems to be the main element responsible for the mother-child bond.  It also appears to be highly functional in maintaining a female’s bond with a lover, too.  For ethical reasons, we can’t perform certain experiments on humans, but mice are fair game.  The prarie vole is a relative of the mouse that shares a great many chemical similarities to humans.  They have a cousin, the meadow vole, which is nearly identical genetically.  The important difference is bonding.  Prarie voles bond for life.  Meadow voles don’t.  In fact, they’re quite promiscuous.  When we block oxytocin receptors in prarie vole females, they no longer bond with males.  When we introduce vasopressin into the brains of the promiscuous meadow voles, they bond.  (Note: Recent evidence dictates a distinct separation between the concepts of long term bonds and monogamy.  Even life-bonded prairie voles still have sex with multiple mates.  They just return to the same bonded one after their excursions.)

What’s more, we’ve found that there are genetic variations in both voles and humans that are linked to problems with bonding.  As much as we may hate to admit it, it’s possible that continued research will show us that some people really aren’t “the marrying type.”  In fact, given the anecdotal evidence, I believe I am not perched on too precarious a limb when I say that I believe that’s the most likely conclusion.  Once again, science is breaking through the myths associated with marriage, fidelity, and human sexuality.  It is helping us to prove that we are not blank slates, and we are not “above” the other animals.  Love feels magical and mysterious, but we must admit, if we are to be honest with ourselves, that it’s not magic.  The more scientists discover, the less mysterious it’s becoming, as well.

Obviously, there are quite a lot of implications involved with this research.  Could newly married couples take a “monogamy pill” as part of their marriage contract?  Would that be ethical?  Is “Love Potion Number 9” a real possibility?  Could you get a shot to help you get through a bad breakup?  Perhaps we shall have to address these concerns one day.  If so, we will need to be prepared to examine the questions objectively and without misconceptions about what humans are “supposed to be.”   We must look into the mirror without fear, and for the love of all that’s true, we must not trust the church or tradition to give us accurate answers.

* It should be noted that this does not demonstrate that humans are “supposed to be monogamous.”  These studies were conducted with subjects who happened to be in monogamous relationships, but for various reasons — not all of them scientifically justified — there seems to be a dearth of research on polyamorous individuals.  Until and unless it is demonstrated that this cycle of “love addiction” can only happen in monogamous relationships, we have no basis for suggesting that we are evolutionarily designed to be exclusively monogamous, particularly when there is so much evidence to the contrary.

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “The Love Drug

  1. Fascinating post, Hamby – a good update on some very interesting research.
    What’s more, we’ve found that there are genetic variations in both voles and humans that are linked to problems with bonding. As much as we may hate to admit it, it’s possible that continued research will show us that some people really aren’t “the marrying type.”
    Are you referring here to the DRD4 dopamine receptor variation, dubbed “the promiscuity gene” by the press?

    I do like the idea of other animals feeling love. Why not? I’m pretty sure my doggie loves me…

    Posted by Susan Walsh | January 24, 2011, 5:59 pm
  2. No. Across the board, it’s been found that voles bond monogamously, but don’t have sex monogamously. In other words, we have to start talking about pair bonding and sexual partners separately.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 25, 2011, 3:20 am
  3. Thanks for that interesting survey of the science… and thanks especially for highlighting several times that all-important point: sexual promiscuity and committed pair-bonds are not mutually exclusive! Because it’s such a commonly-made assumption, I think it’s imperative that writers who know better point it out whenever they write about love and mating dynamics, until it finds its way into the general public’s awareness.

    I don’t know about a shot to help a person get through a breakup, but I do think it’d be tremendously helpful if we were better at acknowledging the physical toll, the withdrawal-like aspects. Too many well-meaning friends will tell someone ‘just get over them,’ not understanding that they literally, physically, can’t — not yet. Just like withdrawal, it takes time for the brain’s chemistry to reorganize itself, and there’s a lot of pain in the interim.

    Posted by Ginny | January 25, 2011, 10:21 am
  4. thanks especially for highlighting several times that all-important point: sexual promiscuity and committed pair-bonds are not mutually exclusive!

    Perhaps this is true biologically, but such a paradigm is unsuccessful for societies. Monogamy is a cultural construct, and has been the backbone of the most productive societies and economies in history. Men are more productive and creative, and less violent, when they are not competing for sex with other men. Monogamy addresses that.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | January 25, 2011, 10:31 am
  5. Monogamy is a cultural construct, and has been the backbone of the most productive societies and economies in history.

    This is an interesting (and loaded) observation. By the way, Susan, I know I’ve said this before, but in a week or so, I’m going to do a series of posts about sex and monogamy, and I’m betting I might just be able to shift your perspective a little bit. I’ll give you a teaser: When you say that monogamy has been the backbone of “productive” societies, you are making the assumption that human happiness is maximized by production. This is not necessarily the case, and if it turns out to be false (or at least not uniquely happy-producing), then we might be facing a society which produces enormously and reduces happiness in the process.

    Men are more productive and creative, and less violent, when they are not competing for sex with other men. Monogamy addresses that.

    And so does non-monogamy, but not polygyny. Men are less violent — strikingly so — when they feel secure in their current AND future sex life. Which is more secure? Knowing you have one woman who — if she wishes — will keep having sex with you, or knowing that there is a ready pool of sex from many women at any time? This kind of scenario can only occur in a powerfully egalitarian society, which we certainly don’t see in the Industrial West, but we’ve seen it in tribal cultures closer to genuine hunter-gatherer.

    Posted by hambydammit | January 25, 2011, 3:50 pm

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