Love and madness: not that different
and World Science staff
To be madly in love could be exactly that—madness, researchers say.
The term “lovesick” is surprisingly accurate, claims a cover story in this month’s National Geographic magazine, based on a review of recent research.
People experiencing romantic love have a chemical profile in their brains similar to that of people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, author Lauren Slater noted. Thus, love may blur the line between mental health and psychopathology.
Research has begun to illuminate where love lies in the brain and the particulars of its chemical components. Key points covered in the article are as follows:
· Love lights up areas of the brain linked to reward and pleasure — the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus — and releases chemicals such as dopamine that, in the right proportions, provoke intense energy, focused attention, recklessness and exhilaration.
· Doing novel things together triggers dopamine in the brain, stimulating feelings of attraction. So first encounters that involve a nerve-wracking activity, like riding a roller coaster, are more likely to lead people to pursue a relationship.
· Love also could be as simple as following our noses. A Swiss experiment in which women were asked to choose which T-shirts worn by a variety of men smelled the best found women preferred the scent of a shirt worn by a man whose genotype was most different from their own — a genotype that, perhaps, is linked to an immune system that possesses something theirs does not. In this way a woman increases the chance that her offspring will be robust.
· Love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile — low serotonin levels. Translation: Love and mental illness may be difficult to tell apart.
· There is hope for those wishing to escape the grip of runaway passion — Prozac, the medication that increases the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin available at the juncture between neurons. Prozac jeopardizes one’s ability to fall in love, and stay in love, by dulling the keen edge of love and its associated libido.
· Studies around the world confirm that passion usually ends. Biologically speaking, the reason romantic love fades may be found in the way our brains respond to the surge and pulse of dopamine. Perhaps the brain adapts to the excessive amounts, and the neurons become desensitized.
· Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., suggests relationships often break up after about four years because that’s how long it takes to raise a child through infancy. Fisher is the author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” a 2004 book.
· Oxytocin is a chemical thought to be plentiful in long-term couples with warm, comfortable relationships. Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes a feeling of connection and bonding. It is released when we hug our children or our long-term spouses or when a mother nurses her infant. In long-term relationships that never get off the ground, chances are the couple has not found a way to stimulate or sustain oxytocin production.
Fisher has proposed that human romantic love evolved out of an “attraction system” shared by mammals and birds.
“Mammals and birds express mate preferences and make mate choices,” Fisher and two colleagues wrote in the Oct. 27 issue of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. Data suggest this attraction system is linked to reward-processing brain areas that use the chemical messenger dopamine, as in humans, they added.
“We propose that this attraction mechanism evolved to enable individuals to focus their mating energy on specific others, thereby conserving energy and facilitating mate choice.”
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