In part 1 we talked about the reasons for serial monogamy – which is NOT monogamy as we know it. But what does it look like inside our brains?
Yeah, okay, I’m going to talk about chemistry, but it’s love chemistry, so listen up.
Let’s talk about falling madly ‘in love’. And by that I mean that initial, total and immediate feeling of magnetic pull towards another person that makes us really stupid and irresponsible and pushes us to jump into their arms like as if the sun will not rise tomorrow.
We humans are the only species that have crushes. I’m not talking about sexual desire, but the full-blown crush. Dr. Fisher in her wonderful book ‘Why we love’, explains that falling in love is not an emotion at all, but a powerful biological need just like hunger, thirst, or the need for sleep.
Pay attention: falling in love is not an emotion. Surprised? Well, maybe, maybe not. I think some of you – the ones who have fallen in love – suspect as much. Remember being overwhelmed and out of control?
Freud said the same thing, by the way, many years before anyone else. What he said was that we have a need for pleasure. And that falling in love gives us the greatest of all pleasures. According to Freud, the libido, the need to have sex, is a very large force in search of pleasure, and it controls us.
Okay, can’t argue with that.
The mechanism of falling in love works like this: Most female animals have a short ovulation period once a year, so once they get horny, they need to pick the male who is going to impregnate quickly. This is the most important decision of their lives, because it determines the future of their gene legacy forever. So how does a female make that choice without auditioning the males, reading their full biographies, checking their credentials and dating for two years? Right. Evolution has given her a chemical mechanism, that’s quick and dirty: she falls in love. Chemistry.
What we call attraction.
And this is how it goes for the males: They need to be elected by that picky but horny female, and they need to be very persuasive during a very short audition. What do they do? they have what we call sexual energy, charisma, flowing from them, to make her fall hopelessly in lust with them.
And this thing stayed with us, humans, even though females can hav ebabies pretty much whenever they want.
Dr. Fisher studied the brain waves of people in love and found two very interesting things.
One – while in love, the brain floods with two neurotransmitters, which are brain chemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine. Both of these are responsible for manic moods and sharp bursts of energy designed to push us to act upon our impulses, to focus us and motivate us to go get what we defined as the target. The production of these two chemicals in bulk greatly reduces the level of another brain chemical, serotonin and that deficiency causes obsessive thoughts that are similar to addiction. We can’t let go of that something we want. We can’t think of anything else.
The second thing we learn from Dr. Fisher is that the brain sends both these chemicals to a very old part of our brain called the Caudate nucleus. This is the part responsible for, among other things, learning, visual stimulation and the center for reward and punishment. The Caudate nucleus is so old, that it was part of our brain before we became mammals. It’s nickname by scientists is ‘the lizard brain’. It’s 65 million years old.
So falling in love happens when our ancient lizard brain is flooded with powerful chemicals, and that’s why we have no control over it. We see someone, perhaps for the first time and maybe the hundredth time, and the ancient mechanism kicks in. Suddenly, dopamine and norepinephrine start pouring into our brain in huge quantities, and they reach the tiny Caudate nucleus. The brain learns immediately: I’m in love! The Caudate nucleus produce a deep need to focus on that special person, look at him, see each tiny detail of him, look into his eyes, be with him, touch him, make love to him. Make him fall in love with us. Live with us 24/7. We want to never, ever let go.
This process is so overpowering that it bears resemblance to addiction to drugs. Not surprisingly, the Caudate nucleus is part of a larger area of the brain, the accumbens nucleus, which has been extensively studied in connection with drug addiction.
So what am I saying? That when you fall in love – it’s such a monumental event in our brain that we have no control over it. Unlike anger, for example, where we would talk ourselves down, we lose control. And the need is so powerful that we will stop at nothing, until we get what we want, or die trying. Think of the expression ‘the power of love’.
All this chemical hurricane, so we can mate with the most chemically suited person and have babies together. That’s the power of evolution.
Dr. Fisher explains in her book, that this type of infatuation lasts a year and a half, at most. The Caudate nucleus becomes less and less sensitive to dopamine and norepinephrine, just like a junkie’s brain gets used to the drug, and it needs an increasing dose to feel the same high.
So, every time we fall in love we lose control completely?
I don’t think so…
Luckily for us, this falling in love mechanism is only part of the contemporary human picture. And I want to reminds us all that the evolutionary theory of infatuation is only that – a theory.
We have needs and urges and impulses, but we also have a thinking brain that controls our impulses, or at least some of them, called the cortex. This is the newest, biggest and most sophisticated part of our brain, and it developed most recently. It is responsible for our decision-making and self-control. The cortex keeps us from eating all the chocolate cake, or killing the obnoxious neighbor. It saves us form smacking our kids when they drive us nuts. This is the brain that explains to us that there are rules and consequences when we do damage unto others. This is the brain that shows us the many advantages to staying in a committed relationship and not chasing the subjects our infatuations whenever we stumble on them.
This is the brain that tells us that we have a choice.
And there’s something else that helps us stay in a committed relationship.
Our brains have another mechanism, just as clever, called the attachment mechanism. It kicks in after a while, when the mad desire starts to decline. That’s when the brain releases another chemical, Oxytocin, that creates sensations of deep connection and calm, of peace and security and happiness, and we know these feelings as ‘love’. We like them, we feel good when they happen, even though they are different, quieter from the mad crush of the beginning.
So when we enter a committed relationship and we expect the mad love to last – it doesn’t. But when it’s right other feelings kick in to protect us from chasing the next infatuation, and that is love.
Ain’t that a big, confusing world…
Next time – about the social issues that force us into monogamy, and all kinds of other good stuff.
Ask questions, leave comments, you know the drill.