Well, this Thursday it’s time again for hearts and flowers and a glass of red wine. Time to gaze into each other’s eyes across a tiny table in a secluded little lounge, perhaps floating above the Seattle skyline.
And when lost in such moments, few of us have any desire to quantify our feelings and sentiments. We’re simply content to let the magic flow and have no desire to disrupt the sensations by probing for causes or questioning the nature of things.
However, there are those who do – damnable scientists intent on stripping love of all its mystery and reducing it to a cold combination of chemicals. And I suppose it’s OK to embrace Mr. Spock as your evolutionary ideal, but hopeless romantics like myself would rather expound on the limits of science.
Nevertheless, my perspective withstanding, it would appear that scientists have succeeded in reducing much of love to a rather complex chemical reaction. Researchers, using MRIs to explore brain activity of the smitten, have found an interplay of hormones and neurotransmitters – dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and serotonin – create the state we call love. For instance, anything that gives you pleasure will elevate dopamine levels, which makes you focus more intensely on the thing giving you pleasure. Liquor artificially increases dopamine, which explains why many loving relationships start over a drink or two and probably explains the plight of many alcoholics as well. As another example, the hormone oxytocin seems to increase attachment and emotional empathy. Still, the high levels of dopamine and oxytocin can’t be sustained; that is, the first intense, chemical charge of pleasure and commitment usually fades away after a few weeks or months and, thereafter, can’t be continued unless they’re artificially boasted by unnatural drugs like booze. However, if the relationship survives, another chemical – serotonin – kicks in. It’s associated with long-term calmness and pleasure.
Aside from such hard-core chemistry, there are other scholastic disciplines that strive to reduce the mystery of love. Evolutionary anthropologists claim that, since both sexes are so intently programmed to reproduce, they innately look for, and are strongly attracted to, certain characteristics in a mate. First and foremost among men is youth, for obvious fertility reasons, and research indicates that, at least initially, men are more interested in a women’s breasts and hips than her face. Women, on the other hand, apparently are attracted to muscular bodies that can protect them from the dangers in the world and masculine faces with high cheekbones and strong, square jaws. You may have heard of “alpha men” – currently a popular concept in anthro circles – who possess many of the traits women find appealing and, therefore, attract a large number of females, which other men envy because men are supposedly biologically predisposed to procreate with as many women as possible.
Well, I don’t know what to say about all that. I like to think several thousand years of civilization have reduced the importance of such base, evolutionary needs and increased the importance of traits like humor, curiosity, intelligence, cleanliness, independence and personality in general. I’d rather gaze intimately into a woman’s eyes rather than wrap a tape measure around her breasts.
So, here’s to a dozen red roses and candlelight. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!