By Matt Kuykendall
Although the concept of romantic love is believed to be only 800 years old, our brains and bodies are hardwired to love. Whether romantic love has existed for only a handful of centuries or since the dawn of man, humanity has wasted little time pouncing upon love as a central and crucial human emotion. John Lennon believed it was all we needed to function as a society and William Wordsworth ushered in an entire genre of literature musing upon it.
The question, of course, is why do we love? Would not Romeo and Juliet’s lives have been simpler had they not suffered from the paralyzing and agonizing cognitive responses the emotion brings?
It turns out that we have little choice in the matter: humans are biologically predisposed to love. Evolutionary biologists believe that the emotion of love evolved as an advantageous trait due to pair bonding resulting in a greater percentage rate of survival for offspring. Swans are famous for their pair bonding and co-rearing of offspring. However, the most studied animal in this regard is the prairie vole.
Not only do prairie voles pair bond, but they also engage in more sex than is biologically necessary – that means prairie voles have sex for fun. The correlation between the prairie voles’ monogamy and their healthy sex life led researchers to look more closely at two hormones released in both prairie voles and humans during orgasm: vasopressin and oxytocin. It turns out that when prairie voles are given a drug that suppresses the release of vasopressin, they show disinterest in their mate and fail to protect her or him from new mates. In short, it seems they fall out of love.
The second love hormone, oxytocin, is likely the most researched hormone in the world right now and scientists have discovered that it is released during human touch, orgasm and even during breastfeeding in both mother and child. The role of the hormone is clear: oxytocin is our natural love drug.
Psychology professor Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University in Israel has been conducting research on oxytocin and its role in human relationships for years. Her recent studies focus on the role of oxytocin in relationships. Her research involves inviting couples at various stages of their “love” into her lab for testing. She found that, “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found,” referencing a study she and her colleagues recently published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study also found that new lovers had double the amount of oxytocin that Feldman usually sees in pregnant women.
Professor Feldman also found that couples with the highest levels of oxytocin were the ones still together six months later and displayed higher levels of attunement to one another during a discussion of shared experiences.
Professor Helen Fisher of Rutgers is perhaps the most famous of all the love researchers due to her immensely popular TED Talk on the subject. She has utilized fMRI technology to investigate the variance of neurotransmitters among singles, new couples, friends and couples who have been together a long time. What she found was that newly in love couples situated in the “attraction” phase of love have extremely high levels of dopamine in each other’s presence. In fact, the brain’s reaction resembled that of someone under the influence of cocaine!
Thus when a relationship is suddenly cut off during this phase, it’s as if a drug addict were attempting to kick their cocaine habit cold turkey. Our body literally goes into withdrawal. This is why Romeo would rather die than live without Juliet. It’s why we stay up all night talking on the phone to a new girlfriend in spite of the early morning alarm; it’s why we travel across the world to spend 36 hours with our new love. Love is a drug, and we are all capable and willing addicts.
// Matt Kuykendall teaches IB and AP psychology at Shanghai American School and is the proud father of Talia, 5 and Kieran, 3.