Hello, hello! Welcome back! From where I’m writing, it is Valentine’s Day–a celebration of love and romance. Love and attraction are the subjects of countless songs, novels, television shows, and films. Romance is one of the most compelling subjects, and simultaneously one of the most confounding.
In observation of a day devoted to one of humanity’s most fascinating topics, our newsletter this week is all about love. While we couldn’t possibly delve into all the mysteries of affection, we’ll take a look at a few things science can tell us about romance. What happens when we fall in love? Why is the heart associated with love? Is it really in his (or her) kiss? Is love at first sight a real thing, and is there really such a thing as love potions? And what does chocolate have to do with love?
Hearts and Valentine’s Day
The traditional valentine is covered with the familiar heart symbol. In cartoons, “heart-eyes” show that a character is in love. But why is the heart associated so closely with love, and why does its symbol bear so little resemblance to the real organ?
There is disagreement on the topic, but many researchers posit that the shape has botanical roots (no pun intended); the heart-shaped leaves of plants believed to have aphrodisiac or contraceptive properties likely came to be associated with attraction and love.
Ancient philosophers believed the heart to be the center of emotion–not so surprising, if one considers the pitter-pat heartbeat felt in the early stages of love. Others trace the symbol’s shape to Galen, a Greek physician who, sometime around 120 CE, described the heart as three-chambered organ with an inverted pinecone shape.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the heart shape was used extensively in the heraldry and religious art of Europe. It would not acquire its strong association with romance, though, until the Thirteenth Century, when a French poem called Le Roman de la poire elaborately detailed the physical and emotional sensations of falling in love. The illuminated poem depicted a smitten suitor kneeling before the object of his affection as he holds his heart out to her.
The Anatomy and Physiology of Love
In one of the first scenes in Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film Coming to America, main character Prince Akeem Joffer’s parents seek to settle his anxiety about meeting a new bride. His mother, the Queen of Zamunda, tells him that on the day she met his father, she was nervous to the point of becoming nauseous.
The king (her husband) concludes jovially, “You see, my son, there is a fine line between love and nausea.”
While the heart might be the symbol of love–we’ve already discussed the arrhythmia caused by new romance–people experience other physical reactions to the pull of attraction. As the King of Zamunda told his son, the tummy gets involved, too. In addition, palms may moisten as mouths go dry. The face may heat and flush.
These effects are orchestrated not by the heart, but the brain and the endocrine system. Multiple neurotransmitters–oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin–are involved in the sensations we equate with love, as are hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. You might be surprised to find out that the secretion of these neurochemicals depends upon what kind of love you’re experiencing.
The ancient Greek language, we’re told, had seven separate words to describe different kinds of love–romantic love was not the same as familial love. Flirtatious love was not the same as affectionate love. In more contemporary times, scientists at Rutgers University have broken romantic love down into three distinct categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Different neurochemicals dominate each of these states.
Lust is dominated by gonadal hormones estrogen and testosterone. The hypothalamus stimulates the ovaries or testes of the respective parties to produce more of these hormones, which raises libido (especially testosterone; present in both male and female bodies, testosterone is heavily involved in libido).
Attraction is similar to lust, but not exactly the same. Feel-good chemical dopamine floods the system during attraction, along with norepinephrine. These chemicals give new love that characteristic heady, mildly euphoric feeling. Functional MRIs have revealed that the reward center of the brain lights up when a person is shown a photo of someone to whom they’re intensely attracted.
In this infatuated state, many feel more impulsive and less inhibited–which probably impels them to approach the person they’re attracted to when they might otherwise be too shy or apprehensive to do so.
This level of infatuation is gratifying, but it’s ultimately unsustainable. In fact, it has an expiration window; if mutual attraction draws two people together, the infatuated, head-over-heels euphoria lasts around 18 months–three years max, psychologists say. And really, how long could sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and increased impulsivity last before the body gave out? Some neuropsychological researchers say we would find ourselves heading full-throttle towards a heart attack if this level of attraction persisted.
As infatuation fades, people who have formed romantic bonds ease into a state of attachment. Attachment is not as giddy or energizing as attraction, but it has greater staying-power and seems to offer long-term psychological and physical benefits. Oxytocin and vasopressin are the big players in attachment; they are both secreted in large amounts by the hypothalamus during childbirth, but also during cuddles with a partner.
Coincidentally, vasopressin plays a key role in stabilizing blood pressure.
Is It Really in His (or her) Kiss?
“If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss,” Betty Everett (and later Cher) told young lovers throughout America. And while pop music isn’t the most reliable source of relationship advice or scientific insight, it turns out that Betty and Cher steered us right, after all (or at least pointed us in the right direction).
Kissing isn’t universal through all cultures, but it is almost ubiquitous. For those cultures who do engage in this expression of affection, kissing seems to be a reliable predictor of compatibility and long-term relationship potential.
Humans aren’t the only animals who kiss; our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins kiss, for example. In the case of the latter, kissing is a protracted bonding experience crucial to the overall good health of the troop. Humans are, however, the only mammals to have everted lips exposed to the external environment–which probably explains, at least partially, why we kiss more frequently than our simian counterparts.
Our lips are packed with nerve endings–around a million! This makes them even more sensitive than our fingertips (FYI, the lower lip tends to be the more sensitive of the pair). Kissing can therefore be especially pleasurable for humans. While the science isn’t settled on why humans kiss, research points consistently towards the kiss’ importance in rating compatibility as well as promoting bonding.
For women, a lot hinges upon a first kiss; scientists say that’s the point at which most women decide whether or not they will become more intimate with a partner. Happily-bonded couples report that they kiss more frequently than less content pairs.
Scientists speculate that kissing allows us to subconsciously assess a potential partner’s fitness for mating–information transmitted through taste and smell might help us gauge whether they are a good genetic match for us. It may be a holdover from our ancient ancestors, for whom pheromones played an important role in mating. Kissing might also stimulate the production of oxytocin for a couple, increasing their sense of calm and contentment with their relationship. Heart rate and blood pressure are both lowered during a kiss, as well. Thanks, vasopressin!
Love at First Sight?
The fairy tales and love songs are full of it–love at first sight, that is. From storied couple Romeo and Juliet to Taylor Swift and her fella du jour, tales of instant attraction abound. But is love at first sight real?
Scientists say yes–and no.Remember the three categories of love Rutgers proposed? Love at first sight, most researchers say, falls within the lust category.
However…Dutch researcher Florian Zsok, who headed the most oft-quoted research on the topic, says there are some differences. Unlike the intense sexuality of lust or the exhilaration of attraction, love at first sight is accompanied by an intense desire to get to know someone as well as a sense of calm and comfort. It also correlates with consistent eye contact. Zsok says that ultimately, it is really just intense fascination with someone.
Whether love at first sight is just lust with a halo or its own unique brand of love, it isn’t common. It’s more commonly experienced by men than by women, and men who experience it are in the minority. Reciprocal love at first sight is rarer still; researchers have not documented a single case of this romantic phenomenon.
If you’re still a true believer in the romance of love at first sight, take heart; research on it has been sparse as well as limited in scope. So who knows? Maybe there’s some wiggle-room for those of us who pin our hopes on a fairytale meeting.
Stories of love potions are just as rife in romantic tales as the elusive love at first sight. The tragic Medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde in Western culture is but one example; Cornish Prince Tristan sails to Ireland to fetch Irish Princess Isolde for his uncle, Lord Mark–but the two accidentally imbibe a love potion meant to be shared between Mark and Isolde. Their story was then marked by separation, scandal, and tragedy, and yet it is still a beloved romance.
So, do love potions exist? Could you create affection with the right ingredients? What about chocolate–does it have any effect on affection?
Concoctions and charms meant to win the heart are common in many cultures. They aren’t always meant to be ingested; In the Southern Appalachians, heart-shaped liverwort leaves are said to enable a young lass to snare the man of her dreams;all she must do is dry the leaves near a fire, rub them together in her hands, and throw the resulting powder over the gentleman’s clothing. She might also carry the leaves in her bodice to attract an array of suitors.
Ethnographers record an oral tradition of “witches” among the Pukhtun of North Pakistan’s Swat Valley who created a particularly macabre love potion; it calls for water that has been used to wash the body of a dead leatherworker. I’ll spare you the finer points; the water is sold to women desiring their husband’s affection. It is then put in the man’s tea.
Apocryphal accounts of women resorting to the method still exist, but modern Pukhtun do not dispatch witches for the errand. As many elements of the original potion and its acquisition are blatant violations of Pukhtun taboos, it is unlikely that this was ever practiced on a wide scale.
Among the Iban people of Borneo, it was said that those desperate for love resorted to a philtre (love charm or potion) with magical properties. The philtre’s primary ingredient was coconut oil prepared by a young, prepubescent girl. Added to this base could be any number of things the lovelorn might dream of at night–but porpoise tears were said to be most effective.
These were obtained by separating a mother porpoise from her calf, whereupon the aggrieved mother would wail and shed tears. This was an understandably difficult ingredient to procure.
Once the philtre was made, the expectant party had to give it an ego boost. “You are no common or useless potion,” they supposedly told it, reiterating; “You are indeed no common philtre.”
These reports should all be taken with a hefty chunk of salt; early ethnographers were not always known for the stunning accuracy of their statements.
So what about chocolate, then? This treat has been associated with romance for a long time; it was once known as an aphrodisiac.
Chocolate delivers a chemical cocktail to the brain by stimulating the hypothalamus, which then releases Dopamine (the pleasure/reward chemical), oxytocin (the bonding chemical), serotonin (antidepressant properties), and Phenylethylamine, a chemical similar to amphetamine.
Phenylethylamine is released by the brain when we experience the giddiness of attraction. Working with the other chemicals produced by the hypothalamus during a chocolate binge, it helps light up the reward centers in the brain and promotes a feeling of well-being.
Don’t expect to find the Tristan to your Isolde by offering chocolate, though; eating chocolate is more likely to promote an attachment to more chocolate than it is to promote attachment to another human.
To conclude–happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers. Whether you are celebrating alone or with a partner, this is a day to appreciate the many facets and wonders of love. Make sure you extend some of that love to yourself; indulge in a treat, take a nice bath, and remember your skincare routine. I hope you’ve enjoyed our Valentine’s Edition, and I look forward to bringing the news to you again next week.
- Zula Elwood