The science of love

 could be considered the worst possible person to tell anybody anything about love, being a 34-year-old single male whose only claim to romantic fame is an apparently unerring ability to be attracted to women who immediately thereafter fall head over heels for someone else, sometimes during our first (and only) date.

On the other hand, perhaps someone like me is particularly well suited for the cold, calculating task of discussing the science of love. Maybe the fault is not in myself, but in my chemicals, that I am single.

Yes, love, in the biological sense, is based on chemicals. Quite a number of them. That “spark” you feel when you touch the hand of someone special is the start of a flood of chemicals that cause you to flush, to breathe harder, to sweat. The fact that this is exactly the same effect that suddenly coming face to face with a bear would have is irrelevant: what’s stress in that instance becomes love due entirely to the context.

Besides, that’s only part of the chemical story. There’s also the euphoria of falling in love, a euphoria that’s a kissing cousin (so to speak) of the euphoria you feel when you’ve been to the dentist for a root canal and you’re doped to the gills. Many of the chemicals our bodies release when we come in contact with someone we find attractive are very similar to amphetamines. One of the main chemicals is called phenylethylamine, or PEA for short, which literally makes you high and causes you to do silly things like break into song in a crowded elevator. (Of course, I do that even when I’m not in love, but that’s just me.)

Unfortunately, that PEA high doesn’t last forever. Like any other drug, you need more and more of it to get the same kick: your body builds up resistance. That’s why that initial ephoria fades over two or three years (or a lot less, in some cases). (Chocolate, by the way, is high in PEA, but it doesn’t do anything to boost the body’s supply.)

Some relationships end when the euphoria fades. Some people, in fact, are literally addicted to that euphoria and so seek out relationship after relationship, trying to recapture it. For those who stick it out, however, a new set of chemicals comes into play. The continued presence of one particular person (or a pet, for that matter, but that’s another story) causes your brain to gradually step up the production of endorphins, which, unlike PEA and similar substances, are actually soothing: they’re natural pain-killers. Thus, your long-term relationship brings you a feeling of security, peace and calm. But when that relationship ends, through death or permanent separation, you feel awful–like a wounded soldier addicted to morphine, you’re no longer getting your daily hit of narcotic.

If all this sounds about as romantic as mixing bread dough, at least it demonstrates that science is now willing to admit that love is real, which is a change from the former official position that the whole thing was invented by medieval troubadors and all the songs, stories, and poems that have been written about it have served only to strengthen what is really nothing but a mass hallucination.

That notion, which essentially saw love as something that could only exist in wealthy cultures where people had enough leisure time to waste on make-believe emotions, has taken a death-blow with the release of recent research that found evidence of romantic love in at least 147 of 166 cultures that were studied–and, other researchers suggest, the only reason it was missed in the remaining 19 cultures was that the original researchers didn’t know where to look. Most scientists are now willing to concede that the capacity and desire to love is hardwired into our genetic makeup.

Why? Well, evolutionary theory has it that about four million years ago, on the plains of Africa, our ancestors started standing upright instead of walking on all fours–and suddenly, they started seeing each other in an entirely different way. An upright animal displays a lot more of its physical and sexual characteristics than does a four-footed one. Variations from individual to individual became much more visible–and the process of choosing a mate much more interesting. Upright posture also changed the sexual act itself into a (sometimes) face-to-face enounter, opening the door even wider for romance.

The pair-bonding that romance engenders, in turn, had an evolutionary benefit in that it increased the likelihood the offspring of the mating would survive. A single parent on the grasslands would have a hard time caring for an infant, gathering food and defending itself. An extra pair of eyes, arms and legs could mean the difference between life and death–and since it was the offspring of pair-bonded humans that survived, the genes for pair-bonding were passed down through the generations, eventually reaching us.

Those early pairs probably only stayed together for about four years, just long enough to rear a child through infancy. Even today, divorce rates peak around the fourth year of marriage. Having another child kept the pair together longer–but only up to the more familiar “seven-year-itch” period.

The tendency toward “playing around” also appears to be part of our biological makeup. After all, a male who mated with more than one female had a better chance of passing on his genes–and a female who mated with more than male, especially if she could do so secretly, could have two males supporting her and her offspring and live high off the hog (or the mastodon, or whatever they were eating in those days).

This appears to come into play in the characteristics the two sexes find most appealing, as well. Males are most interested, from a purely biological point of view, in healthy women in their prime child-bearing years–late teens to twenties. This is why males are emotionally shallow pigs who are interested in only one thing: if a woman is young and attractive, that’s enough for them, and they can tell that at a glance.

Females, on the other hand, are more interested, again from a purely biological point of view, in “good providers.” This is why they want to get to know a man first before deciding whether or not to become seriously involved.

This may explain why men are generally more interested in casual sex than females. In one study, males and females were dispatched to various areas of a university campus to ask one of the following questions to total strangers of the opposite sex: “Would you go out with me tonight?”, “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” and “Would you go to bed with me tonight?”

The results? Fifty-six percent of the females consented to a date (a somewhat higher percentage than I might have predicted from my own research into this field), but only six percent agreed to an apartment visit–and none consented to sex. By contrast, 50 percent of the men consented to a date, 69 percent consented to an apartment visit, and 75 percent said yes to sex.

Of course, the process of courtship is usually not so blunt. But even there, in that culturally-influenced process, scientists see certain constants that are also evident in the animal kingdom. One scientist likens singles bars to the mating grounds of sage grouse and other birds: the males stake out prominent areas, and then start simple courtship displays, such as stretching, laughing heartily, and exaggerating simple movements. Fancy clothing? Bright feathers. Both males and females in the bar exchange all kinds of unspoken signals. If the signals mesh, a man and a woman may leave together. If something short-circuits the signals, the courtship sputters and dies.

In the larger world, the rituals are even more complex, and the chances of all the signals–spoken, unspoken, physical and cultural–meshing perfectly even more remote. Which is why, despite all the research and the attempts to boil love down in a test tube, in the end it’s still a mystery how two people find each other, fall and love, and live happily ever after.

It doesn’t always happen (I can attest to that), but the fact that it happens at all I think (if I may be unscientific for one brief moment) is a miracle.

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