The Chemistry of Love

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Sat, 2006-02-25 09:28

"Love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile," says professor of psychiaty Donatella Marazatti, who studies "the biochemistry of lovesickness." Now there's a topic to ignite the passions, one explored in this month's National Geographic magazine.

The key apparently is two chemicals: serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin -- "perhaps our star neuro-transmitter" -- the one that is altered by drugs like Prozac -- is what quite literally gives our passions real feeling. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder apparently have an imbalance of serotonin; so too do people in the grip of love.

Translation: love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile. Translation: love and mental illness may be difficult to tell apart. Translation [says the National Geographic]: Don't be a fool. Stay away.

If you take advice like that last you're probably dead already. And if you take the science of the idea, you can see that our emotions are very real things. "Sex is emotion in motion," declared Mae West -- those emotions really do have us in thrall. We're wired for love and the obsession that goes with it. Don't deny it, celebrate it. When anthropologist Helen Fisher used an MRI machine to investigate those who do celebrate it , "what Fisher saw fascinated her":

When each subject looked at his or her loved one, the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure -- the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus -- lit up... Love lights up the caudate nucleus because it is home to a dense spread of receptors for a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which Fisher came to think of as part of our own endogenous love potion.

In the right proportions, dopamine creates intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards. It is why, when you are newly in love, you can stay up all night, watch the sun rise, run a race, ski fast down a slope ordinarily too steep for your skill. Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive, and sometimes you don't...

Dopamine, says British psychologist Dr John Marsden "has similar effects on the body and mind as cocaine or speed. 'Attraction and lust really is like a drug. It leaves you wanting more'." Sounding familiar, anyone? "My love is chemical." "Love is the drug." "Love Sick." Turns out the songwriters were right all along. "What's your drug of choice then?" Love. Romantic Love.

It's our nature to fall in love, to be obsessed with love, to lose ourselves in love. "To fly in love on many splendoured wing/ Towards what hot sun may/ Roast my own illusions/ And melt my very soul." So said the poet, Amen.

Now, as I suggested last when giving my $2 on the nature-nurture debate, we're not entirely slaves to our nature, even on the subject of love. "If that was all we had -- if nature and nurture were the whole of the debate -- then that would be it, and we would be ruled only by our animal functions." There is still the large matter of our free will, of choice, which involves in part who we fall in love with, and what we allow ourselves to do about our passions. More on that another day. Until then keep up your obsessions, and enjoy the weekend.

LINKS: So what, really, is this thing called love - National Geographic [introduction only]
Video: That thing called love - National Geographic
Love is the drug, scientists say -- BBC News

Nature v Nurture - character is all - Peter Cresswell

Capitalist and Joe M,

Charles Henrikson's picture

My wife owns me via her virtue. If she were not virtuous I would not be her’s. She owns me in the true sense of the word.


JoeM's picture

Capitalist: "can't understand why certain people who call themselves Objectivists have told me certain people are "taken".
I thought people owned their own lives and were not 'owned' by others in the Objectivist canon. But I guess I'm wrong."

Probably simply slang, a leftover from a time when one truly was considered "taken" by arranged marriage, considering that marriage was not a union of love but a business partnership to link to families to increase wealth. (Not to mention that women were treated as property!).

But good call. Language is consciousness, and the slang obviously does not support an Objectivist view of romantic relationships.

A Conumdrum

Capitalist's picture

I can't understand why certain people who call themselves Objectivists have told me certain people are "taken".

I thought people owned their own lives and were not 'owned' by others in the Objectivist canon. But I guess I'm wrong.

Love is the drug - Bryan Ferry


Peter Cresswell's picture

"Is a true objectivist one that never Loves?"

By no means. A 'true Objectivist' would recognise the very objectivity of love and emotions, and revel in them as a reward. :Innocent

Love and Projection

JoeM's picture

Frizzy: "Is a true objectivist one that never Loves?"

Frizzy, you're forcing me to go back to an area I've turned my back on, the ideas of Carl Jung. But his idea on projection is very relevant here.

Regarding love at first sight, if we are talking a limited range of vision, not knowing the person's values, work, etc, merely seeing the person, and fall "in love", can we really say that it's objective? Usually in this case, we are projecting onto that person who we'd like them to be. And that's why there is the necessity of "getting to know someone." Making it harder to objectively know someone is the possibility that they are acting a role, or presenting only a certain side of themselves (a side that plays into our projections.) Regardless of any somatic chemical processes that accompany this process, love still can exist. Whether or not it's objective depends on how honest the parties involved are with themselves and each other, and how willing they are to really see each other for their true selves.

Yes, Jung was a proponet of this theory, but so were Rand and Branden. Rand captured the idea perfectly in her fictional relationships in the FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED, my favorite example would be Cheryl Taggart's love for James Taggart that was initially based on a (A) false view of James Taggart based on society's (and his own) presentation of him, and (b) her own values that she projected onto him. When he is revealed to be a fake, the love of values was not withdrawn, but her love for him was. Branden (who would know a thing or two about Jung, as well as projecting a false image and leading someone on based on the other's projections) wrote about this in THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ROMANTIC LOVE.


Frizzy's picture

So if Love has similar properties to a drug or mental illness, does being in Love make us less objective than our regular 'sane' self?

What about 'Love at first sight'? How would we ever know that we lost our objectivity in regard to choosing wisely based on our preconcieved notions of best qualities to find in our future mate?

Metaphysical hormones can compromise our Politics and Asthetics.

Is a true objectivist one that never Loves?

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