Is love just a fleeting chemical high in the brain?
Romantic feelings rely on a complicated concoction of chemicals and psychology. But as part of our series on Life’s Big Questions with The Conversation, we ask, can they wear off?
I have recently fallen head over heels in love, but my cynical friends keep telling me that love is nothing but a cocktail of pheromones, dopamine and oxytocin, and that these wear off after a couple of years. The thought scares me, it makes the whole thing seem meaningless. Is love really just brain chemistry? – Jo, London.
“Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.”
It is no accident that arguably the most erotic line of English poetry is all prepositions. The essence of love, at least of passionately romantic love, is revealed in its very grammar. We “fall” in love, not “wander” into it. And, as you say, we fall “head over heels”, not dragging our feet – often at “first sight” rather than on careful inspection. We fall in love “madly, blind” to the other’s vices, not in rational appraisal of their virtues.
Romantic love is overwhelming, irresistible, ballistic. It is in control of us more than we are ever in control of it. In one sense a mystery, it is in another pure simplicity – its course, once engaged, predictable and inevitable, and its cultural expression more or less uniform across time and space. The impulse to think of it in terms of simple causes precedes science. Consider the arrow of Cupid, the potion of a sorcerer – love seems elemental.
Yet love is not easily conquered by science. Let us look at why. Sex pheromones, chemicals designed to broadcast reproductive availability to others, are often quoted as key instruments of attraction. It is an appealing idea. But while pheromones play an important role in insect communication, there is very little evidence that they even exist in humans.
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