Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why Do We Fall In Love: Part One

Ah, falling in love. It's such a profoundly powerful experience. Why do we do the things we do when we meet that special someone? As it turns out, many of our behaviors can be explained by the chemicals that flood our brains.

Shelly hates when I say that... but researchers are quickly decoding the how and why of love and relationships. It's a fascinating area of study mostly because it explains so many of our peculiar relationship behaviors.

Let's go through the process. We'll use two fictional characters- Bert and Shirley. The first post will cover their initial meeting.

They happen to spot each other on opposite ends of the "C" bus downtown. The moment they see each other, there's an immediate attraction. Worth noting: Shirley stopped using the pill a few months ago and is ovulating and Bert is a former college athlete.


First let's see what Bert sees in Shirley. Physical features play a strong role in attraction. Men tend to look for women that are fertile, which includes features like healthy skin, glossy hair, full breasts, contrasting facial features (sign of arousal), and a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7... which is highly correlated with fertility. Sidebar- it doesn't really matter what the actual waist and hip measurements are as long as the ratio is 0.7. Men also look for facial symmetry, an indicator of good genes. 

Sidebar #2- none of us have perfectly symettrical faces. For example, go look in a mirror. One of your eyes is higher and one is farther from your nose. You'll now obsess about this. You're welcome.

Anyway, Shirley has all these characteristics. That's why Bert is interested... she's pretty hot because she has a lot of markers that indicate fertility.

What does Shirley see in Bert? This is where ovulation comes into play. Research suggests women seek men that are more manly. They look for more muscle tone, deeper voice, and more dominant behavior. The idea is they're looking for the healthiest genes to pass on to their unborn children.

Had Shirley not been ovulating, she would have a greater tendency to look for more "stability' indicators like a dude that had a good job, drove a nice car, or promised to change diapers.

What's the deal with the pill?

The pill cancels out this effect. Since the pill mimics pregnancy, women on the pill no longer have this bias based on ovulation.

Okay, back to the story.

Bert and Shirley clearly shared a spark. But they didn't actually talk... yet. 

The next day, they were on the same bus heading downtown. Fueled by their obvious mutual attraction, they struck up a conversation. Almost immediately, both experienced an overwhelming "this is my soulmate" feeling. Too embarrassed to admit it, they instead decided to have coffee the next day.

So what's up with the "this is the person for me" feeling?

Our bodies give off invisible chemicals called pheromones. They're still a bit of a mystery (and artificial pheromones are a scam), but we DO know they have a profound impact on behavior. Bert picked up on Shirley's pheromones and vice versa.

Pheromones carry markers that represent our DNA. Our bodies have the ability to interpret that signal and determine how any person's DNA matches our own. Since the healthiest kids are produced by two people without a lot of common DNA, it makes sense to pair up with others that are very different.

That's exactly what pheromones do for us. If we meet someone with very similar DNA, ur body responds with indifference. If we meet someone with very different DNA, we have a powerful "love at first sight" experience... which is what happened to Bert and Shirley.

They knew they were soulmates because their bodies were telling them they'd produce healthy kids together.

Interestingly, this phenomenon also explains when and with whom women cheat. Women tend to marry the dude that provides, but is more likely to cheat with the masculine dude when she's ovulating. Guys- sorry if that tidbit keeps you up at night... if you're not an especially masculine man.

Sidebar #3- the pill also short-circuits this process. Women on the pill don't seem to have the ability to accurately "read" male pheromones. I have my own weird theory about this. Since so many women are on the pill, they really have no idea which males are genetically dissimilar... until they stop taking the pill.

Infertility has been increasing over the last few decades. Maybe pheromone theory explains this. A woman on the pill is about as likely to marry a dude that's genetically similar as a dude that's genetically different. When our genes are too similar, the woman's body has a greater chance of aborting a fertilized egg. Maybe the increase in fertility is a function of women just married the wrong dude. This seems to be confirmed when measuring that falling in love feeling... there may be a positive correlation between really fertile couples and couples that have a profound "falling in love" experience. Infertile couples probably didn't have the fireworks. 

It's just an idea. To be safe, women: don't marry a dude until you've spent some time off the pill. Dudes: same thing.

So what exactly is this "falling madly in love" thing?

As it turns out, it's a chemical tsunami in your brain. When people have a strong "falling in love' feeling, the following chemicals flood their brains:

  • Dopamine- this chemical makes us feel good. Really good. This is the reason drugs like cocaine and crack are so addictive. Whenever we do anything we enjoy, we enjoy it because of dopamine. Falling in love releases A LOT of dopamine in our brain. When we're in the presence of the object of our affection, we feel good. When we're away, that craving to be with them is a result of a drop in dopamine. We experience withdrawal.
  • Norepinepherine: AKA adrenaline. This gives us the feeling of boundless energy, difficulty sleeping, racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, and any other feeling we might also get if we're running from a bear.
  • Serotonin: These levels go down, which causes us to have obsessive/compulsive like symptoms... which usually manifests itself as obsessive thinking of the other person.
  • Phenylethlamine- This chemical also seems to play a role in the "falling in love' response, and may differentiate the response from the more common fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. This chemical helps ward off depression and suppresses appetite... the reason people lose weight when falling in love. Oh, and phenylethlamine is found in chocolate.
Now that they're a couple, Bert and Shirley will go through typical "early relationship' behaviors. They'll sleep less. They'll eat less and lose weight. They will talk and walk a little faster. They'll obsess over each other. They will talk endlessly. They will spend significant time staring into each others' eyes. They will spend an inordinate amount of time together and ignore friends and family. When they're apart, they will crave each other's presence. They'll have lots o' sex.

All of these behaviors are a direct consequence of the chemical cocktail that floods their nervous system. Isn't science cool?
Eventually these chemicals decrease and are replaced with other chemicals that "bond" us to the other. The biological reason is pretty simple- this early phase gets the ladies pregnant, the next phase keeps us together long enough to raise the kids so they can survive. Well, at least that's what happened when kids were kicked out of the nest immediately before puberty.

Sidebar #4- Ever notice teens, when they fall in love for the first time, are REALLY obnoxious? 


Like any other first-time drug user, their body isn't ready for the onslaught of chemicals. They've never had a chance to habituate to the chemicals so they're extra-powerful. Once they fall in love a few times, they tend to ease off a bit. The chemical onslaught isn't quite as severe. If they go through the cycle frequently, it may not even affect their behaviors much. 

This may be why serial daters become a little cynical... they've just built up too much of a tolerance to the love chemicals.

This may also explain why divorcees tend to have a more powerful 'falling in love" feeling than their single friends. It's probably been awhile since they felt that chemical surge, so they have little to no tolerance. They're like teens again.

Last point- love junkies. It is possible for people to get addicted to love chemicals. The behavior is manifested in initiating relationships, falling madly in love, then breaking up after 6-9 months... which is about the time it takes for the "falling in love" phase to transition to the next phase: commitment.

Up next: Commitment- what happens after Bert and Shirley have been dating for awhile?


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