The Cuddle Chemical

“Falling in love with love is falling in love with make believe” Lorenz Hart’s lyric is all too true. But “Falling in love is a transient phenomenon in certain regions of the brain caused by neuropeptides which bring about a strong sense of social bonding accompanied by a reduced capacity to recognise the shortcomings of the other” does not scan so well, and it would be hard to construct a suitable melody.

I hope that most of us have experienced the exquisite sensations of falling in love, and having that love reciprocated. To wake up in the morning with a sense of excited joy, to be reminded from moment to moment during the day, and to go to sleep at night with the joy to carry into dreams is indeed the stuff of poetry – for perhaps only poetry can most nearly express it. But we know that it does not last at that level. We may hope that it will develop into a deeper, permanent love which is more realistic, accepting the beloved without make believe – just as they are.

Even scientists, who have no particular reputation for romantic ardour, are interested in its biological basis. The evolutionist will tell you that the faculty for falling in love is simply a useful way of motivating the species to mate. Once that has been done adequately, and the genes transferred to the next generation, the neurochemicals reduce. Our genes have little further use for them beyond the inducement, supplemented by other mechanisms, to keep the parents together long enough to allow the young to flourish. Indeed the intoxication may be strong enough to act as a drug, inducing us to fall in love again, and perhaps again – more mating, more gene transfer; and nature wins.

The neuroscientist is able, using brain scans, to chart the areas of the brain which are affected. For example, by increasing the activity of those parts which are concerned with sociability and friendship, and reducing those which enable us to exercise our critical faculties. A key neuropeptide in this process is oxytocin (closely related to vasopressin, in the news lately), which was first identified in the early 20th century, but whose extensive actions are now being explored with enthusiasm. For example it is known to increase erotic interest, and to be active in post-coital peace and affection. In another part of the wood there are promising results in the treatment of autism – which characteristically damages the capacity for empathy, and consequently social relations. Oxytocin increases our ability to trust others and to interpret and understand their feelings. But the difficulties of using experimental treatments on children confine therapeutic use to adults at present, although animal studies at least suggest that it may be more effective in the young.

The history of oxytocin is interesting because the name comes from the Greek “easy birth”. This indeed was its first recognised purpose, assisting for instance with uterine contractions, and subsequently in breast feeding. The activated parts of the brain are very similar to those of romantic love, but not identical. For instance in normal affectionate relationships we expect and indeed need reciprocation. But this need in the mother’s brain is inhibited. She has to continue being “in love” with her yowling, exhausting baby without expecting reciprocation. But here again the effects gradually reduce. And this is important because, after initial total dependence, a mother needs gradually to withdraw so that the baby is able to recognise and develop its own independent identity. The lack of this graded bonding shows up dramatically in babies who are confined from birth to neglectful orphanages. They tend to develop symptoms of social incompetence similar to autism.

In fact this sequence of events is a common experience for us (though I know of no studies precisely connecting these to oxytocin). For example, we might take up a new job, full of enthusiasm and savouring the opportunities and stimulus. But after a while in the job we begin to discover that it’s not quite like that – the rewards are not so great and we see the shortcomings. We then have to decide whether it is “good enough” or not. And compulsive shoppers for tempting items will go through a similar sequence.

So with marriage. We fall in love, and immediately our brain begins to reduce our critical faculties just in case we notice or take account of the flaws which might stop the process. It’s the pink spectacles of oxytocin. We marry and begin the real experience of relationship. As the oxytocin reduces so we gradually realise that the beloved is not perfect and that married life is not unmitigated bliss. Even in marriages which last up to six or seven years before divorce, the fundamental problems can often be traced back to the earliest years. But we hope that in most cases the adjustment to a soundly based and accepting love will take place, and that we find the marriage to be “good enough”.

It may be unromantic to identify the joy of being in love with the presence of chemicals. But I think it to be useful too. It puts a proper emphasis on holding back on impulse and looking beyond this phase. The qualities necessary for marriage are the same qualities necessary for lasting friendship: a sharing of deep values, common though not always identical interests, the ability for the friendship to evolve through periods of change. If we put on one side the current clamour about early sex education and help children to learn how to make and sustain good friendships, we will have set them well on the way.

So what do you think? Perhaps our scientists in biology or psychology have something to add. Does my description accord with peoples’ personal experience? Might a newly ordained priest go through a sequence of feeling elevated, then realising that it’s tougher than he thought, and finally, we hope, coming to terms with the demands of the priestly life?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Cuddle Chemical

  1. Pingback: The Cuddle Chemical

  2. Horace says:

    The scenario seems to me to go like this:
    a)The sight of a pretty girl or a handsome man (perhaps more accurately association with another person who might become a sexual partner) causes an increase in the level of the neuropeptide oxytocin.

    b) The oxytocin causes changes in the activity of certain parts of the brain, specifically “by increasing the activity of those parts which are concerned with sociability and friendship, and reducing those which enable us to exercise our critical faculties”.

    c) This response habituates after a while – which may be what gave rise to the old saying “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”.

    So far so good! But where do we go from here?

    “The qualities necessary for marriage are the same qualities necessary for lasting friendship: a sharing of deep values, common though not always identical interests, the ability for the friendship to evolve through periods of change.”

    But where is ‘love’?
    It would seem that oxytocin elicits ‘eros’ [ Deus Caritas Est – 4 :eros {is considered} principally as a kind of intoxication] but we are asked to replace this with the Christian notion described as ‘agape’ – unselfish caring. [ Deus Caritas Est – 7 :Yet eros and agape —ascending love and descending love— can never be completely separated.]

    And where is ‘duty’?
    Some time ago, during a visit to the Holy Land, I participated somewhat reluctantly in a service of “Renewal of Marriage Vows” at Cana in Galilee. I say reluctantly because to me a vow cannot need renewal (perhaps we need to be reminded of our vows, but that is a different matter).
    Fais ce que dois–adviegne que peut.

  3. Frank says:

    This all sounds a reasonable biological scenario – but what happens in the cases of arranged (Hindu/Muslim?) marriages, when the couples have not met before the wedding? There is certainly no time to fall in love before the marriage starts, if indeed it ever happens. But in the successful cases, and there are many, companionship, duty, obligation, custom, eros and the extended family keep the show on the road, often better than our Western-style hasty marriages, hasty disillusionment and (all too often) hasty trading in the old model for another.

    Outside literature, on which it feeds voraciously, romantic love is a comparatively recent phenomenon; the poor couldn’t afford it and the rich, distracted by dynastic and inheritance considerations, ignored it.

  4. catherine says:

    It depends also on whether one believes love is an emotion. A book by Fr Terence O’Brien SDB states that it is not. Falling in love may just be an emotion and emotions tend to come and go hence ‘love’ not lasting.

  5. Daisy says:

    Once you hear a new word, you seem to hear it everywhere. On the Woman’s Hour highlights this Saturday, they were talking about the effect of having ‘favourite’ children among siblings in a family. One of the contributors spoke about the effect of a (premature/sick) baby being removed for treatment, and so not bonding with its mother. She mentioned lack of oxytocin flow as a cause of this. I felt terribly erudite, having read Quentin’s article.

  6. Horace asks “But where is love?”. This is a fascinating question. Some medieval theologians took the view that there could be no concept of marital love because the bond of marriage was obligatory, and this was incompatible with love which is essentially free.
    I would feel for an answer in the area which Horaces expresses about the linkage of eros and agape in marriage. As human beings we have emotions which will operate in concert with agape (playing more or less important parts at different times). One can also see this in love for one’s children. No eros here, but agape, much assisted by parental emotion (in which I presume evolution has played a big part. Enter oxytocin etc).
    We seem to have a limited control over our emotions (although rather more I suspect than many choose to believe) and, in normal circumstances we can at least decide how to act on them.
    Duty could be merely a synonym for obligation. But it does carry an overtone which suggests that there will be times when we have to act in a particular way, notwithstanding a conflict with our emotions.
    Here’s a conversation I overheard yesterday:
    16 year old Daughter: “Do you and Dad hold hands when you walk on the Common?”
    Mum: “Yes, we often do.”
    Daughter: “Good. That makes me feel happy.”
    That doesn’t answer any questions, but it says more than I can explain.

  7. Trident says:

    In the sort of arranged marriages, which Frank describes, presumably good parents try to make sure that the basic qualities and correspondences needed for a long term relationship are present. If so, they may have helped their children to ovoid the mistakes which ’emotional’ falling in love often allows. (And there is a good chance that the couple will lock emotionally before long.
    But sadly there is too much opportunity for abuse. Parents can often have quite other agendas.
    Certainly in grander marriages, speaking historiically, it was common for the marriage itself to be upheld, but lovers or mistresses were taken – often without serious objection from the other party.
    Good to see that Catherine puts love in inverted commas. I think that what Horace and Quentin have said goes some way to explaining how emotion and free-chosen love should work together. We need to value them both because they work best as partners but awkwardly and dangerously when alone.

  8. phranthie says:

    While it is certain that something powerful happens when fancy turns to love — recognised throughout the ages in mankind, and clear to see in the birds and bees — questions remain about how this happens and why, for example, certainly in the case of humans, should the trigger be for a particular person.

    People who believe that our actions all come from a chemical and genetic source should then face up to the fact that we are, therefore, no more than robots. They should not try at times to skip around this for their personal comfort.

    The evolutionary, physical and chemical answers that Quentin often looks for are always inadequate and there is another way of understanding the phenomenon of our existence here.

    There is a growing bibliography of scholarly books opposed to Darwinism, books which make much more good common sense, and whose authors are not the rednecks and biblical literalists that the media would like to portray. There are many scientists amongst them. God’s answers are all around us as, indeed, they must be.

  9. Frank says:

    I don’t think Quentin discounts God’s creative love at work in the world and in personal encounters; he merely analyses the chemical/biological components that are also present. Grace builds on nature. God uses our erotic/biological impulses for His own greater purposes (though we usually only recognise this in retrospect, when we look back on our lives, aghast at all the mistakes we have made).

    Phranthie seems to suggest that there must be a conflict between God and science, particularly evolution. There isn’t. God is the Lord of Nature – but He generally works through it. To say that serotonin levels in the brain are raised when we are happy or fall in love is simply a chemical ‘fact’. But of course it is not the whole explanation for the phenomenon, as humans are much more complex than this.

    Of course, scientific explanations of human behaviour would be reductive if that is all we have to go on (Dawkins, take note). But if we see them as adjuncts/aids to understanding the miracle of personhod, they have a legitimate, indeed important, place.

  10. kouin says:

    Walk up a flight of stairs and think.
    Run up a flight of stairs and think.

    Love chemicals leads to expressions as I un love you.

    Sex leads to I love you.

  11. Trident says:

    I’m sure Frank is right here. But Phranthie mentions books which, presumably propose alternatives or substantial limitations to Darwinism. And since they are written in some cases by scientists presumably they have good evidence to back them up. I wonder whether Phranthie would tell us a little more about this.

  12. phranthie says:

    The internet is strewn with references to books against Darwinism, often by writers eminently qualified in various fields of related science. A good starting point might be the nine-page bibliography at the end Gerard J Keane’s book ‘Creation Rediscovered’, the book, itself, being a good and wide-ranging criticism of the theory.

    A recent interview in ‘The Remnant’ with Dr David Berlinsky entitled Jewish Intellectuals Challenge Tyranny of Darwinism and dealing with the recent film ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ is quite an enlightening piece, which I could probably upload to anyone interested.

  13. Iona says:

    Thank you, Quentin; I followed up the link and read it all with interest.

    I was aware there were “difficulties” with the Theory of Evolution as a truly scientific theory, since most theories allow of predictions which could be falsified by counter-evidence, but evlolution doesn’t (nothing is recognisable as counter-evidence). Nevertheless, “survival of the fittest” is a very fertile idea and Dawkins’s “selfish gene” comes nicely under this heading in explaining at least some apparently altruistic behaviour in animals and maybe people.

    But the Berlinski interview highlights other things “wrong” with the theory of evolution besides its undisprovability, such as the enormous number of interlinked changes needed for a living organism to evolve, and the unlikelihood of this happening via random mutations on which selection can operate.

    Recently I happened to see some of David Attenborough’s documentaries made a few years (in some cases a decade or two) ago, about birds of paradise and bower-birds. Although he talks happily of these creatures’ extraordinary behaviour in terms of evolution (the female birds “prefer” the more ornate bowers, hence mate preferentially with the better bower-builders, resulting in the passing-on of the genes for even-more-ornate-bower-building), this doesn’t seem to me at all satisfactory as an explanation. Why on earth bother? How is a bird made “fit” to survive by spending virtually all its waking hours on constructing (and repairing, and developing) a complex “bower” which serves no purpose (e.g. is not a nest or any kind of a shelter), merely taking a few minutes off now and again to mate with any female who stops to inspect and indicates her approval?

    (I’ve now ordered the film “Expelled”, discussed in the Berlinski interview, via a DVD rental company).

  14. I find the Berlinski interview to be like the curate’s egg – good in parts. The first thing I would want to note is that the theory of biological evolution is irrelevant to the existence or action of God. What is random to us is not random to God, and we have no way of knowing that he did not use evolution as an instrument of his will. So there is no question of “grovelling” before it; we can and should investigate the evidence, as a scientific question. No, it doesn’t tell us how the universe (or for that matter, multiverses) came to be. That is not a scientific question.
    I don’t think that Berlinski describes randomness adequately. He should have pointed out that the randomness of mutations is limited by their ability to be useful if they are to survive. The control effected by survival “guides” the whole process and has the effect of reducing randomness and bringing about direction.
    Of course the result is untidy (as Iona points out with the bower bird); we have a good example in men being attracted by female figures which appear naturally good for childbearing. But childbearing is often not the masculine top priority. These odd relics, throughout the animal kingdom, are even more difficult to explain through the concept of intelligent design.
    Nor is it true that evolution cannot make predictions, which can then be verified. Time and again evolutionists have predicted the need for an intermediate link between two species, and quite often these have been found. That they have not all been found (and probably never will be) is likely to be down to the patchy fossil record. Today it is predicted that the duration of female fertility in our society will increase. As women tend to delay childbearing, those who have the genes for later fertility will be more successful, and these genes will become more frequent in the population. But in the nature of things this will take time.
    Meanwhile our ability to examine the genome is beginning to show many genetic connections between species which we could not track before.
    I do not think it is right to speak of atheism as a cause of 20th century atrocities. Atheism is a negative – a vacuum. And Original Sin abhors a vacuum. Original Sin, much encouraged by the Devil, is the culprit – just as it is at a more trivial level in the ordinary lovelessness of everyday life.

  15. phranthie says:

    There is a singular absence of intermediate life forms in the fossil record when, in fact, there should be countless examples of these. To say that ‘they have not all been found’ and that ‘quite often these have been found’ is news to me, and I’d like to know what and where these life forms are. Even the one-time favourite display lineage of the horse (remember?) has been disassembled in museums throughout the world and put away when it was shown clearly to be false.

    ‘Irreducible Complexity’ is also a powerful and, to my mind, unanswerable argument against macro-evolutionism, and even the geological time scale has been invalidated by peer-reviewed laboratory experiment and paleo-hydraulic analysis, http://www.sedimentology.fr.

    Many Catholics, too, who compromise with some form of theistic evolution often seem unaware that belief in Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Baptism, Redemption, and the Immaculate Conception is fundamental to our Faith. They are keystones of the edifice which, if not accepted, put us in a corner of illogicality, with the whole structure falling down as a consequence.

  16. Iona says:

    Quentiln says: the theory of evolution “can make predictions, which can then be verified”. I think that in order to be considered scientific, a theory has to be able to make predictions which are in principle falsifiable, rather than verifiable. If the theory of evolution predicts an intermediate form which is then NOT found, this non-finding will not falsify the theory.

    I’m quite happy to believe that living things evolve, and “survival of the fittest” seems so obvious (once thought of) that it’s just common-sense. But there are problems with some aspects of the theory.

  17. Iona is right to use the term ‘in principle’ with regard to falsifiability. The concept, associated of course with Karl Popper, belongs more to the philosophy of science than to science itself – and is highly theoretical. Thus Dawkins does not absolutely deny the existence of God – since there is no way of empirically demonstrating that he does not exist – but Dawkins does so for all practical purposes. Similarly, straightforward scientific propositions about the boiling point of water are certain, but theoretically falsifiable.
    For 150 years, intelligent design-ers have challenged evolutionists to show how flatfish larvae could develop from having eyes on either side of their head to adults with both eyes on one side. Now of course we have Heteronectes, ancient fossils – which are an intermediate form. (See Nature, 10 July 2008). That is a scientific proposition, which is theoretically falsifiable.
    The prediction of any intermediate link can be falsified by demonstrating that the transformation involved does not require an intermediate link and is effected in some other way; it therefore amply fulfills Popper’s criterion.
    Evolutionary theory in itself is falsifiable, but its general outline carries such a weight of evidence behind it that anyone really familar with it would be at least daring to deny it.

  18. Trident says:

    In the light of the discussion so far, I was interested to come across a passage in Alister McGrath’s book on “The Dawkins Delusion.” McGrath, originally an atheist, comverted to Christianity. He is a molecular scientist and Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford. He says, of intelligent design, that it is “based on gaps in scientific explanation such as the irreducible complexity of the world. It is not an appoach which I accept either on sciemtific or theological grounds. In my view, those who adopt this approavh make Christinaity deeply, and needlessly, vulnerable to scientific progress.”

  19. Fariam says:

    Your last question is very interesting from my point of view seen as I joined a religous congreation in 1983 and have been here ever since.

    “So what do you think? Perhaps our scientists in biology or psychology have something to add. Does my description accord with peoples’ personal experience? Might a newly ordained priest go through a sequence of feeling elevated, then realising that it’s tougher than he thought, and finally, we hope, coming to terms with the demands of the priestly life?”

    I can only say, yes, it accords with my experience of my vocation. Indeed, I often compare a religious vocation with falling in love and the commitemnt of marriage.

    I learned to see my vocation as a tunnel several years ago when going through a time of disillusionment. Making my commitment was the entrance into the tunnel. It was a new and exciting journey with an uncharted future. But like any long tunnel, I came to a halfway point. The light from whence I started had disappeared; the light before me was nowhere to be seen. I stood in the dark. Did I turn back or go on? I knew the experience of my first love/call was real and the words I had pronounced in commitment meant something. I decided to put my faith in those wprds and in the One whom had called me and continued in the dark for a while in the hope that the light would soon appear at the end of the tunnel! It did, and since then I have had a deep inner peace regarding my vocation regardless of struggles and circumstances, knowing that my God and I are bound together just as surely as Our Lady and Jesus were bound together at the Cross and in the joy of the Resurrection.

    It is the joy of coming out at the other end of the tunnel, richer and wiser for the experience of darkness.

    I see a similiar richness in my parent´s marriage. It reminds me of the best wine at the Wedding in Cana. I am sure my parents thought they were experiencing the best wine the day they got married. Seeing them walk along hand in hand, having learned each others´ strengths and weaknesses and having shared many joys and sufferings, they exhibit a peace, security and love rooted in 47 years shared together. This walk through the tunnel of life, love and faith has given a richness and depth to their marriage which they could never have known or imagined on their wedding day. Surely that is the best wine!

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