Love as Biochemical Pathology

Uploaded 8/8/2010, approx. 10 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited.

The unpalatable truth is that falling in love is in some ways indistinguishable from a mental health pathology.

Behavior changes while falling in love are reminiscent of psychosis, and biochemically speaking, passionate love closely imitates substance abuse.

Appearing in the BBC series Body Gates on December 4th, 2002, Dr. John Marsden, the head of the British National Addiction Centre, said that love is addictive and akin to cocaine and speed. Sex is a booby trap intended to bind the partners long enough to bond.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Andreas Bartels and Samir Zeki of University College in London showed that the same areas of the brain are active when abusing drugs and when in love. The prefrontal cortex, hyperactive in depressed patients, is completely inactive when one is besotted.

How can this be reconciled with the low levels of serotonin that are the sign of both depression and infatuation? That is still unclear.

Other MRI studies conducted in 2006 and 7 by Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor in the department of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, these studies revealed that the caudate in the ventral tegmental brain areas involved in cravings, for example, for food, and the secretion of dopamine, these areas of the brain are lit up in subjects who view photos of their loved ones.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation. It causes a sensation akin to a substance-induced high.

On August 14, 2007, the New Scientist news service, gave the details of a study originally published in the Journal of Adolescent Health earlier that year. Serge Brand of the psychiatric university clinics in Basel, Switzerland, and his colleagues interviewed 113 teenagers with the average age of 17. Sixty-five of these teenagers reported having fallen in love recently.

And the conclusion, the lovestruck adolescent slept less, acted more compulsively more often, had lots of ideas and creative energy, and was more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as reckless driving.

The researchers concluded we were able to demonstrate that adolescents in early stage intense romantic love did not differ from patients during a hypomanic stage.

This led them to conclude that intense romantic love in teenagers is a psychopathologically prominent stage.

But is it erotic lust or is it love that brings about these cerebral upheavals?

As distinct from love, lust is brought on by surges of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. These hormones induce an indiscriminate scramble for physical gratification.

In the brain, the hypothalamus, which controls hunger, thirst, and other primordial drives, and the amygdala, the locus of arousal, become active.

Attraction transpires once a more or less appropriate object is found with the right body language and the right speed and tone of voice, and this attraction results in a panoply of sleep and eating disorders almost immediately.

A recent study in the University of Chicago demonstrated that testosterone levels shoot up by one-third, even during a casual shot with a female stranger. The stronger the hormonal reaction, the more marked the changes in behavior.

And this loop may be a part of a larger mating response.

In animals, testosterone provokes aggression and recklessness. The hormones readings in married men and fathers, for instance, are markedly lower than in single males still playing the field.

Still, the long-term outcomes of being in love are lustful.

Dopamine, heavily secreted while falling in love, does trigger the production of testosterone and sexual attraction inevitably kicks in.

Helen Fisher of Roger University suggests a three-phase model of falling in love. Each stage in a model involves a distinct set of chemicals. The BBC summed it up succinctly and sensationally.

Events occurring in the brain when we are in love have stark similarities with mental illness.

We are attracted to people with the same genetic makeup and smell of our parents.

Dr. Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago studied feminine attraction to sweaty T-shirts, formerly worn by males. She discovered that the closer the smell resembled her father's, the more attracted and aroused the woman subject became.

Falling in love is therefore an exercise in proxy incest and of indication of Freud's much maligned oedipus and electra complexes.

Writing in the February 2004 issue of the journal Neuroimage, Andreas Bartels described identical reactions in the brains of young mothers when looking at their babies and in the brains of people looking at their lovers. Same reaction.

He concluded that both romantic and maternal love are highly rewarding experiences that are linked to the perpetuation of the species and consequently have a closely linked biological function of crucial evolutionary importance.

This incestuous backdrop of love was further demonstrated by psychologist David Perrett of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The subjects in his experiments preferred their own faces, in other words a composite of their two parents, when computer morphed into the opposite sex.

All these secretions play a major role in the onslaught of love.

In results published in February 2007 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated convincingly that women who sniffed an androstadienone, a signaling chemical found in male sweat, saliva and semen, these women experienced higher levels of the hormone cortisol. They reacted hormonally to a male hormone.

This increase in cortisol resulted in sexual arousal and improved mood.

The effect that the male sweat had on women, the good effect, lasted a whopping one hour.

Still, contrary to prevailing misconceptions, love is mostly about negative emotions, not positive ones.

As Professor Arthur Aaron from the State University of New York at Stony Brook has shown, in the first few meetings people misinterpret certain physical cues and feelings, notably fear and thrill, as falling in love.

Thus, counterintuitively, anxious people, especially those with these serotonin transporter gene, are more sexually active because they fall in love more often.

The cues are misinterpreted, anxiety is misinterpreted as love.

Obsessive thoughts regarding the loved one and compulsive acts are also common.

Perception is distorted as is cognition. We know the saying love is blind. And the lover easily failed the reality test.

Falling in love involves the enhanced secretion of PEA, or the love chemical, in the first two to four years of relationship.

This natural drug, PEA, creates a euphoric high and helps obscure the failings and shortcomings of the potential mate. Such oblivion, in other words, perceiving only the spouse's good sides while ignoring or discarding her bad sides, this is a pathology akin to the primitive psychological defense mechanism known as splitting.

Narcissists, for instance, patients suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, also idealize their romantic and intimate partners.

In a similar cognitive emotional impairment, looking only at the good side and ignoring the bad side, is common in many other mental health disorders.

The activity of a host of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine and serotonin, this activity is heightened, or in the case of serotonin lowered in both paramours.

Yet such irregularities are not confined only to falling in love.

Their associated differences with obsessive compulsive disorder and even with depression.

It is telling that once attachment is formed and infatuation gives way to a more stable and less exuberant relationship, the levels of these substances, biochemical substances, return to normal.

These substances are then replaced by two hormones, endorphins, which usually play a part in social interactions, including bonding and sex. One of them is oxytocin, the cuddling chemical, and the other one is vasopressin.

Oxytocin facilitates bonding. It is released in the mother during breastfeeding and in the members of the couple when they spend time together and when they sexually climax. Viagra, for instance, seems to facilitate the release of oxytocin, at least in rats.

It seems therefore that the distinctions we often make between types of love, motherly love, romantic love, etc., these distinctions are artificial as far as human biochemistry goes. It's all one and the same.

As neuroscientist Larry Young's research with prairie voles at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University demonstrated, and I quote, human love is set off by a biochemical chain of events that originally evolved in ancient brain circuits involving mother-child bonding, which is stimulated in mammals by the release of oxytocin during labor, delivery, and nursing.

The same scientist told the New York Times in an article titled, Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss, and dated January 12th, 2009, he said, some of our sexuality is evolved to stimulate the same oxytocin system to create female-male bonds.

Dr. Young also noted that sexual foreplay and intercourse stimulate the same parts of a woman's body that are involved in giving birth and nursing.

This hormonal hypothesis, which is by no means proven in fact, would help explain a couple of differences between humans and less monogamous mammals.

Females' desire to have sex even when they are not fertile and male's erotic fascination with breasts are uniquely human. More frequent sex and more attention to breasts, Dr. Young said, could help build long-term bonds through a cocktail of ancient neuropeptides like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.

Researchers have achieved similar results by squirting oxytocin into people's nostrils.

Moreover, a related hormone, vasopressin, creates urges for bonding and nesting when it is injected in male voles, or naturally activated by sex in them.

After Dr. Young found that male voles with a genetically limited vasopressin response were less likely to find mates, Swedish researchers reported that men with a similar genetic tendency were less likely to get married.

If we give an oxytocin blocker to female voles, they become like 95% of other mammal species, Dr. Young said. They will not bond, no matter how many times they mate with a male, or how hard he tries to bond with them. They mate, it feels really good, and they move on if another male comes along.

If love is similarly biochemically based, you should in theory be able to suppress it in a similar way.

In other words, monogamy is also biochemical.

Love in all its phases and manifestations is an addiction, probably to the various forms of internally secreted norepinephrine, such as the aforementioned amphetamine-like PEA.

Love in other words is a form of substance abuse.

The withdrawal of romantic love has serious mental health repercussions, we all know that.

A study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kendler, professor of psychiatry and director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, and by others, was published in September 2002 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. The study revealed that break-ups often lead to depression and anxiety.

Other magnetic resonance-based studies demonstrated how the insular cortex, in charge of experiencing pain, becomes very active when subjects viewed photos of former loved ones.

Still, love cannot be reduced to its biochemical and electrical components. Love is not tantamount to our bodily processes. Rather, it is the way we experience these processes that is love. Love is how we interpret these flows and ebbs of compounds using a higher-level language.

In other words, love is pure poetry, not the letters and sentences it is composed of.

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