Love can be a complex mix of chemistry and emotions, professor says
Feb. 9, 2009
For Dr. Tim Loving, Valentine's Day is more than just chocolates, flowers, a nice dinner, smooches and long, loving gazes at your partner. It's also a kind of laboratory of hormones, chemicals, cultural expectations and interpersonal dynamics that raises profound questions about the biological basis of our emotions.
Loving, an assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology, studies a number of aspects of romantic relationships. He's been particularly interested, of late, in the short-term physiological effects of being in the presence of—or even just thinking about—a romantic partner.
"In a context like a Valentine's Day dinner," says Loving, "there's a lot of stuff going on."
To start, he says, simply being in the presence of someone whom we find attractive can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that's connected to the brain's pleasure system (and that seems to be involved, for instance, in why people get pleasure from using cocaine and amphetamines).
Valentine's Day, says Loving, can be understood as a way to reinforce this basic pleasure with a bevy of other pleasure-inducing activities.
"It's the first rule of interpersonal attraction: we're attracted to people whose presence is rewarding to us," he says. "Flowers are pretty. People like to get flowers. We like people who give us flowers. Nice music is relaxing, and we like to be with people who make us feel comfortable and safe. Whether it's because there's an actual biological response that makes us feel good—and there's evidence, for instance, that chocolate has such an effect—or just because we've learned culturally that it's good, it still contributes to the overall mood."
The dynamic between the biological and the cultural, says Loving, is so complex and reciprocal that it's impossible to disentangle it in any fundamental sense. It is possible, however, to characterize some of the effects and patterns that emerge.
It's the culture, for instance, that lays out the expectations for what a satisfactory Valentine's Day will look like, but it's in the nature of human cognition to order specific sets of expectations into what social psychologists call a "script." These scripts, then, condition, dampen and amplify physiological responses.
In the case of Valentine's Day, says Loving, the script is established early in our lives—with the cards, for instance, we give our classmates in elementary school—and reinforced so many times that by the time we're actually participating in the ritual as adults, the script has been written into our biology.
When things go as planned, says Loving, this works to our benefit. From the minute we head out the door to the restaurant, we're releasing dopamine. We're producing elevated levels of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, which induce a state of physiological excitement, as well as oxytocin, which promotes trust and bonding. And we're associating this rush of good feeling and arousal with our partner.
"The cortisol brings people together," say Loving. "It's probably oxytocin that helps to maintain that attraction."
When things go wrong, the same brew of hormones that boosts the positive orientation of a good Valentine's Day dinner can amplify the negative feelings.
"I think you can build it up and set the expectations beyond what can reasonably be met," he says. "If a partner doesn't step up to the plate, that can carry a lot of weight."
In his research, Loving has paid particular attention to cortisol, which is the body's primary stress hormone, and which can be a factor, it seems, in both negative and positive responses.
"When we say 'stress,' we tend to think of it in a negative light," says Loving. "But in the physiological context, it has to do with a state of arousal.
"When we're attracted to somebody, we need to have a certain level of arousal in order to achieve a connection with that person. It's the overall emotional context that's going to color the nature of our arousal."
In a recent study, Loving and his colleagues measured the cortisol levels in a sample of women who self-identified as being "madly, deeply in love" with their partners. He found that when these women were asked to reflect on their relationship with their partner, their cortisol levels spiked.
Loving also found that the cortisol levels stayed elevated for significantly longer in the women who are more "relationship-focused"—who are the kind of people who tend to ruminate on relationships regardless of whether or not they happen to be in one at the time.
"One of the things that's most fascinating to me," says Loving, "is how our own individual disposition—how we view the world—interacts with basic biological processes.
"People like me, for instance, who spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, are going to be more affected by these physiological processes."
This biological sensitivity to relationships, says Loving, has implications that go well beyond the intensity with which someone experiences a good or bad Valentine's Day.
His research, for instance, suggests people who are in good relationships tend to heal from wounds faster than people who aren't.
Even more tantalizing, and frightening, are the possibilities that emerge for deploying our understanding of these processes to alter our emotions.
"I don't think we're that far away," says Loving, "from developing a kind of love drug."
Such a drug, says Loving, wouldn't make you fall in love with another person, but it might prime you to feel excited in their presence, and, once excited, to be more open than usual to bonding with them. In a very new relationship, he says, the effects could be determinative.
"The data we're seeing," he says, "seem to suggest that, in the case of relationship initiation, you could completely create a strong attraction toward another person.
"It's similar to what happens when you do something exciting around someone else. 'I feel good, my body feels good, and you're here.' We call it 'misattribution of arousal.' If you give somebody something that's going to arouse them in the presence of another person, those feelings should go ahead and drive attraction to the person who happens to be nearby. In some ways you don't even need a drug, you just need a good roller coaster."
That we don't all take our first dates to the amusement park, says Loving, is evidence of the complexity of people—not everyone likes roller coasters—and also of the limitations of arousal in the development of a relationship.
"Eventually a relationship has to get beyond just an intense physical attraction," Loving says, "and that's where the mind and people's individual disposition play the dominant role. But that visceral drive to be with another person—it's looking like that's biology's role."
Even in the case of long marriages, however, we may end up using a drug to help restore lost passion, or to help work through a tough patch.
"When people have a long history, and a lot of baggage," Loving says, "simply having them take something isn't going to override everything that got them there in the first place, but it could give them a little bit of a break in some of those ill feelings. It could give them space to try to connect with one another."
The prospect of using drugs to manipulate our emotions may be the stuff of science fiction—and Shakespeare, for that matter—but Loving suspects that a lot of the fears of our biochemically inflected future come from misapprehensions about what love is in the first place.
We already use all kinds of tools to help us fall or stay in love. (What else is Valentine's Day but just such a tool?) And we're already pretty familiar with the idea of using our bodies to improve our moods, even if we just think of it as taking a jog or a moonlit walk on the beach.
"A lot of people want to maintain this romantic ideal of relationships, this idea that we do it all on our own," he says. "What we're learning, I think, is that love has a little bit less to do with our own personal preferences than we think.
"Biology's playing a role, and you can actually tweak your biology. Maybe it's not as romantic, but I think the truth is that people need help in a lot of ways. Right now, when a couple comes in to a marriage counselor and says that they've lost passion in their marriage, they're told to go do things together—to go to a movie, take a walk, create shared memories. All those things they're doing are affecting their biological processes. They're creating new associations in the brain. What's so wrong with giving that a little kickstart?"
For Loving, there's power even in the knowledge of how deeply our emotions are entwined in our biology. It enables us, if only in a limited way, to be more thoughtful about the choices we make and about the expectations we set for ourselves and our loved one.
When it comes to Valentine's Day, for instance, Loving and his wife have made a conscious effort, in the past, to keep it relatively simple, to avoid weighing it with too much significance. This year, they're planning on a low-key evening at home.
"I guess we're still in the honeymoon phase with our five-month-old daughter," he says. "We'd rather stay home with her than go out and be away from her."
Not that Loving doesn't assign any significance to Feb. 14.
"We send out our annual holiday newsletter each year around Valentine's Day," he says. "We are 'The Lovings' after all."