No civilization on earth has been void of love stories, poems or songs. Romantic affection has been a highlight of our existence, enduring despite cynicism and skeptics and rising divorce rates.
Part of the reason we see such disarray in the world of love and lust may be the influx of hormonal influences that change not only how we feel, but also how we think. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, author and social researcher, suggests that the whole phenomenon of “falling in love” and building attachment may be less consensual than we care to realize.
As someone who grew up having a lot of big ideas in a very small town, Fisher was struck by the lack of actual data in science on the topics of romantic love and attraction, given that one of our primary goals as a species is to procreate. The process of selecting a mate, she states repeatedly throughout her research, has changed drastically as our average lifespans have increased, our needs have diversified, and gender roles have shifted or expanded.
Her books and TED Talks focus not only on these social and political aspects of societal attitudes towards partnership, but also delve into the chemical workings within the love and lust machine that is the human brain.
One of her most famous research studies at Rutgers University has produced results that indicate three basic “stages of love,” each driven by specific hormones.
The first stage is, of course, lust. This consists of instant chemical approval — or “love at first sight.” We’re all familiar with the hormones testosterone and estrogen, and these are vital in promoting the primal desires perhaps responsible for a few rash Friday night decisions or the very beginning of a longer-term relationship, when you’re making eyes at each other across the room. These hormones not only control your sex drive, but also can impact what kind of person you find attractive, from their physicality to less objective senses, like scent.
Next comes the attraction stage. This generally begins once the first date has gone — or is going — quite well, and your neurotransmitters are in a tizzy sending signals for adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin release. Adrenaline prepares you for action. While it can, in times of stress, be a prompter for your flight or fight response, it serves to promote that nervous “butterflies” feeling that bumps up your game when pursuing a new love interest. Just like your anticipation of a difficult test might make you nervous, the potential of a desirable relationship requires the same hormonal prep.
Dopamine and Serotonin further enhance new coupledom by essentially giving you the same high you feel after ingesting chocolate … or snorting cocaine. Your body is responding to the triggering of your neurological “reward system.” It’s the physiological way of saying, “May I have some more please?”
This involves cravings and increased enjoyment of all you take in with your five senses. That explains why the sky is bluer, the time goes faster, and their jokes are funnier. Congratulations, if you’re truly falling in love, you’re beginning an addict. Surprisingly, this hormone works with lovers to decrease sleep and nutrition needs, just like it would for a drug-induced high, and keeps the thought of your “next hit” (ie: next date) fresh in your thoughts.
This may seem awfully unfair and shallow, but these first two stages prime you to enter the “Attachment” stage, because they increase the likelihood that you will focus on your partner’s positive traits, as well as longing to spend more time with them.
Entering the tertiary stage of attachment means that a couple is setting up the possibly of raising children. And reproduction entails a scary set of challenges, so that attachment had better be solid.
Fortunately, your brain has a pretty good cheerleading squad — or coercive forces — called Oxytocin and Vasopressin. These hormones are released during sex, which kind of throws “casual sex” out the window. That explains why you can feel closer to someone you barely know (but slept with) than that person you exchanged bad puns with for a semester in school. Both sexes experience a surge of Oxytocin release upon orgasm. New mothers experience a rise in Oxytocin during and after childbirth. Vasopressin, on the other hand, seems to play a crucial part in keeping couples engaged with one another. Besides controlling thirst, it also seems to have some impact on controlling infidelity. When decreased in prairie voles, who are famous in the scientific community for sexual activity beyond reproductive necessity, they found that “couples” fell apart as they no longer fought off other options.
Are we then just a bundle of chemicals? Well, yes and no. Fisher has devoted many years of study to not only the brain activity of lovers, rejected lovers, and married couples, but to the personality types that appear to stay or leave.
You may fall in love for hormonal reasons, but that’s not what ultimately keeps you together. Furthermore, hormones are affected by actions, circumstances and personalities, making the whole system unnervingly complex — but exciting. For Fisher, who developed a questionnaire to see what hormones most influence different people, biology influences personality and personality works together with basic urges to pull people together or drive them apart. Beyond that are the natural intricacies of background and values, but her studies have supported the efforts of online dating sites and tapped into the question: “What makes people stay together?”
In an interview with OnBeing, she admits that the process is far from cut and dry.
“I’ve spent the last three years on this. And there are many reasons that you fall in love with one person rather than another, that psychologists can tell you. And we tend to fall in love with somebody from the same socioeconomic background, the same general level of intelligence, the same general level of good looks, the same religious values. Your childhood certainly plays a role, but nobody knows how. And that’s about it, that’s all they know.” She elaborates, “No, they’ve never found the way two personalities fit together to make a good relationship,” but clarifies that her research has yielded some interesting results. “I think we’ve evolved four very broad personality types associated with the ratios of these four chemicals in the brain. And on this dating site that I have created, called Chemistry.com, I ask you first a series of questions to see to what degree you express these chemicals, and I’m watching who chooses who to love.”
Currently, almost 4 million people in the United States have taken Fisher’s survey, and she’s delighted that her results may explain why some people — despite having all the factors that traditionally link two individuals together in terms of appearance, intelligence, education and socioeconomics — don’t gravitate towards each other, while others do.
It’s really pretty simple: The brain is a crazy, stupid matchmaker. Stay tuned, and try not to listen to all the sappy love songs past Stage Two.
Top photo is from YouTube video
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.