The Chemistry of Love

Why love is a many-splendoured thing, a miracle and blessing

CoupleLove is the strongest motivator to live. It is also the biggest cause of heartbreaks. More powerful than the desire for life, richer than every other emotion in all its hues and creative in its every manifestation, love is many a splendoured thing.

Though love by another name would still be love, there have been varied attempts at its definition. Crooned Nat King Cole, "L is for the way you look at me, O is for the only one I see, V is very, very extraordinary, E is even more than anyone that you can adore..."

For romantics, love is a miracle, a blessing. But, if we lift our pink shades for a moment to put the emotion under a microscope, it might evoke questions. Does this wonderful feeling live in our hearts, minds, or in our heads? Should we thank our biology for it, or could it be a matter of sheer chemistry between two people?

Spark unplugged

"It's pure chemistry," says 25-year-old Linda Baker from Wisconsin, US: "It's an immediate attraction and connection to someone. It can develop over time, but there is a definite initial spark."

While Tuhin Sinha, author of the recently-published novel, That Thing Called Love, believes that, "It's an instinct that grows into an emotion." Pradeep Nambiar, who had an arranged marriage, says, "Even without much scope for courtship, one knows if there would be chemistry with the prospective partner. It took me three months to fall in love with her completely." He recalls, "But, when I met her I knew that there was a chemistry."

Dr Margaret Rogers Van Coops, a clinical hypnotherapist, healer specialising in alternative therapies, and counsellor, explains: "Love is a feeling of acceptance and of togetherness in harmony." Speaking to CW, she said, "Two people come together and share themselves by exchanging energy, words, thoughts, and emotions. They are motivated by this union to move forward individually, or in a side-by-side action."

Brain scans of people in love have revealed that love at an early stage is not so much an emotion as it is a motivational drive to win the love of someone. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, found out that the early stages of a romantic relationship spark activity in dopamine-rich areas of our brain associated with motivation and reward. The more intense the relationship, the greater the activity. The most important part seems to be the reward system - the part of the brain that lets you focus your attention, gives you elation, and the ability to get what you want. In this case, a beloved. The regions associated with emotion are activated only later in a relationship."

Give and take

It's the quest for pleasure that makes us fall in love, says Dr Sri Krishna Chaitanya, a psychoneuroimmunologist, and Hare Krishna follower in India and the UK. He calls love anandamaya-bhyasat [seekers of happiness; in this case, love] and quotes a sloka: Dadati prati grihnati, guhyam akhyati prucchati, bhunktam bhnjayate chaivam, shadvidh priti lakshanam [Giving something, taking something, feeding something and to eat something, and speaking everything, no secrecy, and to know everything of the other person. When these things are transacted, then there is love].

Notes Dr Coops, "In the beginning, the auras of each of the two people in love emanate their personal needs and desires. As these two people communicate their hopes and dreams, there is a sharing of energy. As the chakras stir and energy moves, the connection between the chakras unites. Since all the chakras harmonise, they lead to sexual passion. Once this happens, the expressive states of the individual minds are locked together, focusing on the good feelings. Neither is focusing on the negative stuff that they both carry."

What is it you said it was? You haven't heard yet! It's the hormone, oxytocin. When it's got you hooked on the excitement, it can be tougher to kick and love junkies are a reality. This means newer relationships, more chemical fix and higher risks. Besides, any arousing activity increases the level of dopamine and trigger feelings of romance as a side-effect. Extreme situations of fear, or joy, can also bring romance and love can hit you when you aren't looking for it. Besides, say behavioural scientists, humans, unfortunately, are not naturally monogamous.

It's great for those of us who find their true love. For others who face rejection, the pain of a broken-heart is physical. Psychologists have found out that rejection registers automatically in the brain, and the mechanism appears to be similar to the experience of physical pain.

Physical chemistry is supported by our values, beliefs and personalities. Philosophical novelist and poet Kahlil Gibran defines it as "an offspring of spiritual affinity." When two people meet and connect on a deeper level it can be felt in the soul.

Love, after all, is about friendship, respect, humour, warmth and contentment. Though loving is universal, its expression varies according to culture and gender. Explains Fisher, "Women in love show more emotional activity earlier in a relationship; for men, love looks a little more like lust, with extra activity in visual areas that mediate sexual arousal. Men in love have lower levels of testosterone, linked to aggression and sex drive. Love-struck women, in contrast, have higher levels of testosterone."

A chemical state with genetic roots and environmental influences, or a wonderful feeling that can make or break us love remains, "such a tissue of paradoxes, and exists in such an endless variety of forms and shades, that you may say almost anything about it that you please, and it is likely to be correct."

Love Binds

Does this, in other words, mean that love is blind? Absolutely! Love is known to blind us to everything other than the best qualities of our sweetheart. Scientists have found that when people look at their lovers, the neural circuits that are normally associated with critical social assessment of other people are suppressed. When no longer madly in love, the hormone levels return to normal.

When we share a chemistry with another person, chances are that this is really a general activity of neurochemicals. Cupid's arrows would have been ineffective if not first dipped in an unromantically-named chemical. Explains Dr Sri Krishna, "When two people are attracted to each other, neurochemicals gush forth. The common symptoms of love, including sweaty palms, shaky knees and general restlessness, are caused by a natural chemical, phenylethylamine [PEA, dubbed the "love molecule"]. Its release from the brain can be triggered from deceptively simple actions like the meeting of the eyes, or touching of the hands. Heady emotions, racing pulses and heavy breathing results, and all these are an overdose of this chemical."

Is it possible that this chemical explosion could take place the minute you lay your eyes on that one special person for the first time in life? Can there be love at first sight?

"When one is younger, it is definitely possible. Later on, probably by the end of the first meeting," feels Sinha. But, "It's possible at any age," as Nambiar and Baker believe.

Love Blooms

  • Red Chrysanthemum - I love
  • Balsam - Ardent love
  • Red Balsam - Impatient yet resolved to win your love
  • Ambrosia - Love returned
  • Amaranth [globe] - Unfading love
  • Yellow Acacia - Secret love
  • Azalea - Love, romance.

Wired to the Brain

Who we love is not determined solely by the laboratory of our brain. We might be neurologically wired for romance. However, we usually balance social similarities and psychological differences in our minds. Cultural factors and learning play big roles, so do memories. Says Dr Coops, "Memories are recorded as images in the brain that are thereafter attached to negative or positive mindsets. If all the five senses come together in one given moment of pleasure the mind can shift consciousness in a self-induced hypnotic state to create a belief that that person is deeply in love."

Neuroscientists say that when people say that they are crazy about someone, chances are that they are telling the truth. Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, showed that levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which has a calming effect, dip below normal in those in love. This is also true of people with obsessive compulsive disorder. Both spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing about something or someone - as much as 95 per cent of the day

How long does this borderline madness last? Somewhere between six months and two years, say researchers. After a while, the body builds tolerance to PEA and other sizzling chemicals. Inevitably, the feeling fades. Most of us settle down at this stage. However, falling in love is like being on hard drugs.

Napoleonic Love

Napolean Bonaparte wrote as many as 75,000 letters in his lifetime, most of them to his wife, Josephine. Savour the chemistry the couple shared:

Paris, December 1795

I wake filled with thoughts of you. Your portrait and the intoxicating evening which we spent yesterday have left my senses in turmoil. Sweet, incomparable Josephine, what a strange effect you have on my heart! Are you angry? Do I see you looking sad? Are you worried? My soul aches with sorrow, and there can be no rest for you lover; but is there still more in store for me when, yielding to the profound feelings which overwhelm me, I draw from your lips, from your heart a love which consumes me with fire? Ah! it was last night that I fully realised how false an image of you your portrait gives!

You are leaving at noon; I shall see you in three hours. Until then, mio dolce amor, a thousand kisses; but give me none in return, for they set my blood on fire.

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