“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?