Early this morning, as I sat sipping a coffee I can’t really afford, a girl walked up to the counter to pick up her drink. Thanks to her build, her hair style and color, and her height, she looked an awful lot like my girlfriend from behind. This led, almost instantly, to a stab of excitement somewhere in my chest, a noticeable increase in my heart rate, and a feeling of sinking disappointment and general mopiness when my brain caught up with my limbic system and remembered that my girlfriend is in Georgia, and going to be there for another week.
It got me wondering why, in a physical/scientific sense, a glance at someone with shoulder-length wavy light brown hair and, well, a nice posterior that I haven’t seen in three months, would throw me down an emotional staircase?
It’s more than a kick ass awful song, it’s a great question. I mean, seriously, what is love?
Our identities, our wants, our needs, our thoughts, what you might call the soul of a human being exists as electrochemical reactions within our brains, and, to some extent, throughout our bodies. There’s a long loop of feedback. You can argue there’s more to it if you like, certainly what arises is more than the sum of its parts. I actually think the idea that we are entirely biochemical processes is far more extraordinary than the alternative that there’s some sort of secret ingredient; anything can happen by magic, who cares? . . . But the idea that we live in a universe whose fundamental rules do not need to be stretched or broken to encompass the totality of our existence? That we can be everything we are, in spite of existing in a world made up of fairly simple pieces. . . Now, that lights a fire in me.
So I decided to approach this with a scientific mindset, and work from the theory that my girlfriend controls my brain, long distance, with chemical reactions. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.
Attraction is a finicky thing. There’s lots of evidence that who we are into correlates with how different our immune systems are, how strongly they physically resemble our opposite sex parent (I don’t know if the reverse is true for people with homosexual leanings), and how much they look like ourselves, along with facial symmetry. On the other hand, 33% of couples meet online these days, so there’s more to it than that. Long term attraction depends on intellectual attraction, similar life goals and priorities, a mixture of shared and divergent interests, and the combination of knowing when to communicate, and when to just shut up and let it be okay. Exactly what attracts various people (and to what degree) also depends on their sex, on the security of the world and financial markets, on what time of the month it is, and what their relationship situation is. Oh, and what you happen to be doing at that moment, the light level, and so on. On top of all that, perception of one thing changes perspective of others. Are you physically attractive? Congratulations, you’ll be perceived as funnier than you would otherwise! Are you funny? Congrats again, you’ll be perceived as more physically attractive!
Condensed, there’s a lot that goes into exactly why and how you respond to one person, as opposed to another. We can’t possibly look at all that right now–but what about the next step of the process? Restated: When attraction happens, what happens?
In what is probably a good indicator of the evolutionary importance of love (or at least stable relationships) to humans as species, it turns out a whole host of things happen, from the release of drugs that make you happy, to some low-level rewiring of your brain. Love is basically a chemical addiction.
Serotonin does a whole bunch of things, one of them being the ability to make us focus on things. Really, really, focus on things. One might even say obsess about them. Ever been completely unable to get someone out of your head? Thank serotonin. It’s trying to get you to put in the time and effort required to find a mate by making you disregard everything that previously seemed important. It’s doing more than just getting your lazy rear off the couch, to the extent that you’ll lose your appetite and lose the ability to sleep restfully. Other fun effects include increased heart rate, the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and nerve growth factor.
Nerve Growth Factor
Let’s talk about NGF for a second. What does it do? Exactly what it says on the can: It encourages nerve growth, causing the elongation and branching of axons. It also plays a role in deciding which ones live and which ones die. Keep in mind, this is just the attraction phase and love has already started rewiring your brain! Listen up you pessimists, that old folksy idea that love changes you, is a literal truth. It reaches into your brain and starts reprogramming your personality.
This is phase comes next, after you’ve (hopefully) managed to start interacting with your mate in person. You know, since your brain has already rewired itself and all. Now we’re talking about a stable, maintained, human connection. What does that require? Orgasms, apparently.
Or the same chemicals anyway. A primary factor in long term attraction between two people is oxytocin, the chemical your brain dumps into your bloodstream after good sex. It does things like shutting off the part of our brain that would get annoyed by certain things. Someone you’re in love with can do or say things that would drive you up the wall in another person, with impunity. It’s one of the reasons that everyone knows a couple is on the rocks when they reach the point where one or both of them seem to be driven crazy by the other.
Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone” because it plays a role in forming not just romantic relationships, but familial ones. It’s the chemical that tricks women into believing that squeezing a small human through their vagina was not just a good thing, but that they should continue coddling, feeding, and cleaning up after the resultant creature indefinitely.
Obviously, it’s a hell of a drug.
It sort of blows my mind, when I think about it, the sort of feedback that’s happening here. Love is in our minds, right? But so is this idea of the people we love. I have an idea in my head of the people I love, a picture built from external stimuli, and, somehow, the pathways associated with recognizing those people are also associated with the release of chemicals into my brain. It goes beyond that, though, to just picturing those people. Or singular aspects vaguely related to them. I miss my mom and gram when I make food (and not just for the obvious reason that it tastes much better when they make it), my sister when I see someone driving a CRV, or when I see frog-related objects. I think about my dad whenever I smell gun cleaner or work on my car. I miss my girlfriend when I see a pretty girl. . . and so on. I think about my friends and family when I feel a bit down and nine times out of ten I immediately feel good. Physical stimuli producing mental reactions resulting in physical and mental shifts.
Even accounting for the chemistry of it, it still seems a bit like magic.