The Myth and Science of Love

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The month of February is regarded as the month of romance, the month for lovers, with the celebration of the St. Valentine’s Day on the 14th. A lot of cards, flowers, candies, and gifts are exchanged between lovers. The image of the heart and the winged Cupid and his bow and arrows firing at hearts is a common sight on bill boards, magazines and shopping malls. 

What is Love?

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The word “love” can have a variety of related but distinct meanings in different contexts and is said to be a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion and affection. Love is an emotion of strong affection. I use the word love here in the context of the strong emotional expression of sexual attraction, affection and personal attachment between the opposite sexes. Love here expresses feelings of romance.

Romantic Love is the most powerful sensation a human being can have. It involves the obsessive thinking about and craving for a particular person. Romance is where love begins, and it seems to have the most extreme effect on human behavior. Starting from puberty, most humans wish to experience the feeling of being in love, yet most people would have difficulty describing what exactly love is. images-7.jpegPeople live for love, sing for love, write poems for love, do funny unbelievable things in the name of being in love. People will even kill for love! We find quotes like, ‘You are the apple of my eyes’, ‘I can never live without you’,‘ My heart yearns for you alone’; ‘Love is blind’. You can remember dozens of these sayings. Perhaps you have used some yourself.

The Myth

Many images are used as symbols of love. images-12.jpegMost popularly and universally used is the Heart. It is believed that love resides in, and emanates from the heart. th-5.jpegOther symbols are, the pairing swans, the pigeons and the doves known as the love birds; the rose flower- a symbol of perfection; the harp – a symbol of love in lyric arts, poetry and music. In China, the maple leaf is an emblem of lovers! Chocolate is also a love symbol and is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Legends:   There are many interesting legends around love. Popular legends are connected to St Valentine’s Day and Cupid.

St. Valentine’s Day which lovers celebrate on the 14th of February, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. Around 270 A.D. when the Roman Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men who he then enlisted into the army. Valentine, a priest, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. 

IMG_6209.JPGWhen Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be imprisoned and put to death. Valentine’s soft spot for young lovers earned him the admiration of lovers and young couples.

According to the legend, the imprisoned Valentine fell in love with a girl who frequently visited him during his confinement. He actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself to this girl before his death. It was alleged that he signed the letter with “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. At the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day and so he became the lovers’ Saint and February 14 became the Lovers’ Day!

On the other hand, there is a very interesting story about Cupid and His mortal Bride Psyche in Roman mythology. Cupid is the most famous of St. Valentine symbols. images-3.pngHe is seen as a mischievous, winged child armed with bow and arrows aiming at hearts of lovers, causing them to fall deeply in love! The arrows signify desire and emotions of love. In ancient Greece he was known as Eros, the young son of Aphrodites, the goddess of love and beauty. To the Romans he was Cupid, and his mother was Venus.

The science of love

Unknown-4.jpegGetting struck by Cupid’s arrow may very well take your breath away and make your heart race this Valentine’s Day but, most of our body’s chemistry is controlled by the brain. “Falling in love” is not an exception. We call it love. It feels like love. But this most profound  of all human emotions is probably nature’s beautiful way of keeping the human species alive and reproducing.  We are basically animals with inborn biological instincts, and your brain is creating powerful hormones to get you to mate. Research scientists have found that a location at the base/ bottom of  the brain is responsible for the triggering of the production of hormones and chemicals that give the feeling of falling in love. “Falling in love” is simply Mother Nature making sure that you find a mate and procreate! Dr. Renshaw, of Loyola University puts it this way:

“Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions. This internal elixir of love is responsible for making our cheeks flush, our palms sweat and our hearts race.

Levels of these substances, which include dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine, increase when two people fall in love. Dopamine creates feelings of euphoria while adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for the pitter patter of the heart, restlessness and overall preoccupation that go along with experiencing love. MRI scans indicate that love lights up the pleasure center of the brain. When we fall in love, blood flow increases in this area, which is the same part of the brain responsible for drug addiction and obsessive compulsive disorders.” Waw! you may exclaim.                                      

images-5.jpegDr Helen Fischer, the well renowned expert on the biology of love and attraction of Rutgers University in the U.S.A. has carried out numerous researches on the love areas in the brain and has proposed 3 stages of love, namely:

  • Lust or Erotic passion- Sexual drive which may not necessarily focus on just one individual.
  • Attraction – Early stage of romantic love characterized by intense craving for the loved one. (The intensity of romantic love tends to last between six months to two and a half years before turning into attachment for most people)
  • Attachment – deep feelings of union or bonding with a long term partner. It is believed to have evolved to enable a couple remain together to bear and rear children. Attachment phase however needs a lot of patience, understanding and consideration for the other partner. Frequent sexual relations between couples at this stage, releases hormones that warms up and bind the relationship.

Each stage is believed to be driven by different hormones and chemicals.

Here are some of the cocktail of “Love” hormones/chemicals shooting into your body from a location at the base/bottom of your brain, to make you happy victims of nature’s procreation plan:

  • Pheromones: Chemicals you emit to attract a partner
  • Oxytocin: This hormone bonds a woman to her sex partner
  • Vasopressin: Men release this hormone during sex. It promotes pair bonding
  • Phenylethylamine (PEA): A natural amphetamine
  • Dopamine and Norepinephrine: These are natural mood enhancers
  • Testosterone: This hormone increases your sexual desire and drive

Hmm, this can be alarming! Well, love still makes the world go round and being in love is the most beautiful feeling one can experience. I wish everyone could stay in love forever. Modern science is however weakening our myths and proving that love lives in the brain and not in the heart. But, does it matter? Next time you are sending a Valentine Card, instead of writing, “I love you from the bottom of my heart”, it may be more appropriate to write, “I love you from the bottom of my brain!”.

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