By Devin van Dyke
Love is a beautiful state of unthinking affection. It releases us from the patterns of daily life and lends transcendent meaning to our relationships. Love has been described by Karen Sunde “a glimpse of heaven,” and “the master key that opens the gates of happiness” by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Somehow that emotion has won some important status in our collective consciousness—reflected by its thematic dominance in art and literature. Whatever unique place love has in the pantheon of emotions, like all its peers it can be reduced to the behavior of chemicals in our brains.
The brain is an incredibly complicated organic machine capable of synthesizing the most dramatic and indelible sensations conceivable, from religious experiences to deep depression to blissful and selfless love. That the firing of neurons is responsible for the vividness of how we experience life is a fact that will never cease to amaze me. I am slow to declare miracles, but the existence of peak emotional states like love is as close to one as I have ever seen. Nearly as wonderful as the simple fact of its existence are the benefits love confers.
To the individual, love is a constant source of hope and happiness. To give and receive love are often seen as the highest joys available to us, even for those who consider themselves unloved or even unlovable (probably wrong on the first count and certainly wrong on the second), the existence of love is a reminder that life is not just a barren expanse. Furthermore, love’s benefits extend beyond individual happiness.
The existence of love plays a big role in our enduring survival. Romantic love mediates the mating process and supports monogamy, while familial love strengthens the bonds that produce cooperation and the companionship we need to thrive. The attachment love connotes is nearly unbreakable and serves as the glue of the small-scale social structures with which we organize our lives. These interpersonal bonds supported by love are extremely beneficial. Couples and families have far greater chances of surviving and leaving behind healthy children than do solitary people unbound by familial or romantic love. Love clearly carries advantages for both the psychological health of the individual and the larger-scale continuation of humankind. What, however, is the mechanism by which our brains experience love?
Love is not the monolithic force we perceive it to be. Instead, it is generally accepted to be a combination of attraction and attachment, with an array of peripheral markers such as loss of appetite and sleep, increased heart rate, and confused thoughts. Attraction and attachment are two very distinct psychological reactions produced by discrete neurological systems. The feeling we know as attachment is the result of the activity of vasopressin (a hormone that commences and continues patterns of behavior that support pair-bonding) and oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as the “love hormone”, oxytocin plays an important role in social recognition, anxiety, and maternal behavior. The recreational drug MDMA’s empathogenic effects are believed to be caused by its ability to increase synaptic levels of oxytocin. On the other side of the spectrum, decreased levels of oxytocin are implicated in sociopathy, manipulative behavior, and general lack of empathy.
Attraction is the result of a much more active and exciting neurochemical system including dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is the brain’s reward chemical, producing analgesia and a distinctive ‘rush’ familiar to athletes and opiate-abusers, while norepinephrine is released in response to stress or anxiety – it arouses our fight-or-flight reaction, makes the heart beat faster, dilates our veins, and triggers energy release from glucose and fat stores.
These scientific explanations, while broadly correct, are not specific or complete enough to offer much practical use. There remains a great deal about the biological basis of love that science does not yet know. Research within this field is some of the most active in all of neuroscience. A better understanding of our minds and the strongest emotions we can experience will offer a variety of new medicines and therapies for conditions from everyday anxiety to existential angst. As the famed philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm once said, “the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”