Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Ah, The Mysteries Of Love: Phernomes, Hormones & Moans In The Night

Scientists are hard at work belaboring the obvious: We live longer and lead more productive lives when we're in good relationships. I do not begrudge their belaboring. Indeed, it's kind of nice scientifically quantifying the benefits of a stable relationship based on love and the companionship it provides. Oh yes, and that sex thing. But unlocking the mysteries of love is a fool's mission in that scientists will never fully understand what makes us tick no matter how hard they try.

I was long lucky in lust, but that love thing eluded me until some 13 years ago today when a long-time friend and I hit the linoleum one night. Figuratively speaking, we haven't gotten back on our feet since.

This obviously wasn't love at first sight but rather . . . uh, positive vibrations accumulated over decades of occasional phone calls, postcards sent from ports of call on our respective travels, conversations in the presence of mutual friends, and for me on one particular evening the loin-stirring sight of her coming through a doorway, her lower torso and legs silhouetted under a diaphanous ankle-length skirt back lit by a setting sun.
Most scientists, however, would poo poo our long journey to love. A big part of the explanation, they say, is simple: We smelled right to each other. Those smells can attract us in powerful ways, and we're talking less Chanel No. 5 and Calvin Klein Eternity for Men than the more subtle aromas that emanate from the mouth, skin, scalp and other places that will be left to the imagination since this is a family blog. The way that a potential partner looks and sounds is, of course, also important.

Scientists tell us that men view a woman's body as an indicator of their ability to bear and nurse children while women see a broad chest and shoulders as a sign that a man can keep food on the table. Testosterone is very big player in either case. Well, we're past even thinking about having kids, although I will admit to having the requisite food-providing bod if you overlook my paunch. I'm not a big breast guy, but boy am I into shoulders, and my mate's are magnificent. Then there are the aforementioned torso and legs.

My mate's voice is somewhat deep, which is to say seductive, with a hint of the antipodes, while mine starts deep and goes deeper as the situation warrants, further signs of that testosterone thingie.

This brings us to kissing, MHC and the previously alluded to linoleum floor.

MHC is a bunch of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex, which most commonly influences tissue rejection but was on board when we took that first kiss. And since we liked that first kiss, a second deeper kiss and then much more as MHC pulled our tactile trip wires and we became aroused.

So how did we figure out that we were in love and not merely lust? Because our brains told us so in what scientists have found is a three-step process.

In the first step, our ventral tegmentals got on board. These are a tissue mass in the brain's lower regions where dopamine is made. Dopamine, it turns out, regulates reward and results in the thrill we feel when we do something really neat, get a big raise or feel ecstatic -- like when we fall in love.

Well, as many of us know, that falling-in-love feeling fades with time, but in the second step our brains' nucleus accumbens, a few floors above the ventral tegamental, pump out not just dopamine but also serotonin and oxytocin, the latter being the cerebral tie that binds. New mothers are awash in oxytocin during labor and when they nurse, forming an unbreakable bond with their babies.

The third step emanates from the caudate nuclei, a pair of wee structures on either side of the head where the patterns that help run our lives -- like knowing how to drive a car or use a computer mouse -- are stored for safekeeping. Same for parlaying that first kiss into falling in love and then committing to a permanent love.

Not all love is permanent, of course, and it figures that scientists believe that falling out of love also have neural and chemical components.

All this talk of testosterone, MHC and ugly lumps in the noggin kind of demystifies, which is to say unromancifies, love. But methinks that no matter how hard scientists try, they will never completely unlock all of the mysteries of love.  I hope not.
IMAGES (From top): "The Promenade" (1917-18) by Marc Chagall; "Romeo and Juliet (1884) by Frank Dicksee; "Tristan and Isolde (1911) by John William Waterhouse; "The Fainting of Layla and Majnum (ca. 1550), artist unknown;"Orpheus and Eurydice" (1922) by Charles de Sousy Ricketts; Porgy and Bess.

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