Thursday, February 12, 2009

Love Potion?

Today is the shared 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin!

DISCOVER magazine has a special issue entirely devoted to “The Brain” on the stands now. Pick it up if you can; it’s packed with fascinating articles about autistic savants, the power of music, hypnosis, “recovered memories,” animal intelligence, etc. Since Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, this seems a good time to discuss the article titled “Addicted to Love,” about the workings of oxytocin, popularly known as the love hormone or “feel-good” hormone. Evolution comes into this story, too, so it’s appropriate for this date.

The author of the article begins with the premise, “We feel the passions of love because our brains contain specific neurochemical signals that create those feelings in us.” (Well, okay, that’s the efficient cause, but not necessarily the ultimate cause.) Oxytocin activates the reward centers of the brains, the same areas that are hijacked by habit-forming drugs, making the term “addicted” somewhat apt. This chemical plays a role in sexual activity, mother-infant attachment, and commitment between mates. It’s released during orgasm and while a baby nurses. It also rises, oddly, in the bodies of women under stress, as if stress stimulates a physiological need to seek connection with other people. When researchers blocked oxytocin receptors in the brains of prairie voles, normally pair-bonding animals, the voles became promiscuous. Conversely, injecting the chemical into a related species of voles that don’t form pair-bonds made the animals monogamous.

Does this finding mean we can create a love potion with which to dose commitment-shy men and transform them into devoted partners? Unfortunately not; human beings have a more complicated psychology.

According to this article, “love is as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as is heartbeat regulation and stereo vision”—and it arises from our mammalian patterns of caring for our offspring. “The biological capacity for love is one way the brain prepares us for offspring who are born young and helpless and need tending to have the slightest hope of survival.” Thence come the bonds between parent and child and between the adults who must care for the child. If reptiles, which mate indiscriminately and typically abandon their offspring in the egg or soon afterward, had developed intelligence, “there would be no love sonnets in the reptilian canon.”

So are our affectionate emotions “nothing but” brain chemistry and the firing of neurons, potentially able to be manipulated (once we learn enough about this complex system) the way babies are “conditioned” from conception in BRAVE NEW WORLD? I don’t believe that. Even the DISCOVER article acknowledges that “the story is far more complicated than that. There is a biologically grounded brain system that creates and maintains the feeling we call love, but its cause can’t be reduced to one biochemical reaction.”

Margaret L. Carter (

1 comment:

  1. Mmm-mm, I love me my Oxytocin. Being pregnant, I've got a mega-dose of it right now. Honey, you haven't lived until you've written a Romance novel while knocked-up! I just read and reviewed REINING IN THE RANCHER by Karen Templeton and her pregnant heroine's hormones were driving her to bond! Bond! Bond! And that is so true. Karen's the mother of five too, so she knows these things.

    You're right though. Human beings are complicated creatures. I believe we're both physical and spiritual beings. We don't have to be governed by our hormones, although they can be rather nice sometimes.