In the summer of 1999, Cornell University published research purporting to show that love really is a drug. To be precise, it is a cocktail of dopamine, phenylethylamine and oxytocin in the bloodstream that produces the sensation we call infatuation. Love, the researchers argued, was in fact a chemically induced form of insanity. This condition lasts until the body builds up an immunity to the substances involved, which is usually just long enough to meet, mate and raise a child to early infancy.
I no longer see early attachment as a distinctly newborn emotion, separate from our adult feeling. The experience – the qualia – of grown-up love is shaped by a thousand memories flashing through your head as the emotion washes over you: memories of past loves, romantic poetry, Audrey Hepburn movies, and most of all memories of the person who triggers the feeling in you. Newborn children haven’t lived long enough to assemble all those memories, and they don’t have a memory system developed enough to record or play back that remembered complexity. But grown-up love is also a chemical feeling, one that has effects on our memory systems, but also one that possesses a life of its own. We don’t know the exact ingredients of the cocktail, and no doubt the proportions of its ingredients differ from person to person. But some mix of oxytocin and endorphins is likely pivotal to the feeling.
I believe it’s this chemistry that we share with our children, even children in their first days of life. When our son switches from tantrums to giggles at the sight of his mother entering a room, he’s doing so because the sight of her face has released a host of chemicals in his head – the same chemicals flooding his mother’s brain as she gazes back at him. Infants don’t have words for the feeling, and it isn’t accompanied by the rich tapestry of memories invoked by grown-up attachment. But some essential part of the feeling is mirrored in those two brains. It’s nice to think that each of us has unique ways of feeling love, but there are times when the shared experience is more moving. At some point in your first days of life, your brain began sending signals to you saying: you’re safe with this person; keep close to her. Decades later, you’re still getting the same message.
Emerald Robinson says on the Daily Orbit video:
Mother Nature’s Love Potion #9 may have a darker side. New research says that the hormone oxytocin, or the love hormone known to produce those warm, fuzzy feelings of love, is also responsible for intense emotional pain. Um yeah, have they not heard love hurts? Researchers say the hormone strengthens social memory, so if you have a negative or stressful experience, the hormone activates a part of your brain that intensifies the memory. But, on the flip side, it does the same for good experiences, therefore increasing feelings of well-being. Oxytocin has been tested as an anti-anxiety drug and researchers say by understanding its dual role in triggering or reducing anxiety, depending on the social context, they can optimize oxytocin treatments. Well, hurt me once shame on you, hurt me twice – shame on my oxytocin for not helping me remember the first time.
The problem with infatuation, of course, is that it's a mirage, a trick of the eye – indeed, a trick of the endocrine system. Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it's more like love's shady second cousin who's always borrowing money and can't hold down a job. When you become infatuated with somebody, you're not really looking at that person; you're just captivated by your own reflection, intoxicated by a dream of completion that you have projected on a virtual stranger. We tend, in such a state, to decide all sorts of spectacular things about our lovers that may or may not be true. We perceive something almost divine in our beloved, even if our friends and family might not get it. One man's Venus is another man's bimbo, after all, and somebody else might easily consider your personal Adonis to be a flat-out boring little loser.
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So, yes, my love affair with Felipe had a wonderful element of romance to it, which I will always cherish. But it was not an infatuation, and here's how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man's chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact within my own personality, and I allowed myself to meet Felipe for who he was.
The gist of [Denis de Rougemont's] thesis [in Love in the Western World] is that mature sexual love is total devotion to the entirety of another human being – as distinct from bodily lust or passion, which he describes as being in love with being in love, passion in particular being an infatuation with the subjective feelings aroused by postponing sexual intercourse with an idealized woman.Gerard Donovan: "Love may indeed be all sweet chemicals and nothing to do with divine intervention or a cherub with a bow and arrow. But let your heart enjoy it."
Nicholas Fearn, How to Think Like a Philosopher. New York: Grove Press, 2001. p 1.
“The Brain in Love.” Steven Johnson ’90. Brown Alumni Monthly. July/August 2004. p. 43.
"Oxytocin Has A Darker Side." Emerald Robinson, The Daily Orbit July 24, 2013.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. pp. 101, 105-106.
Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 174
Gerard Donovan. Schopenhauer's Telescope: A Novel. New York: Counterpoint, 2003. p 299.