“So what, really, is this thing called LOVE?” Lauren Slater of National Geographic earnestly asks in the February 2006 issue. I saw the magazine, all by itself, on a waiting room table at my therapist’s office, which she shares with other practitioners. No one else was waiting, though, so I swiped it. Why? First of all, it was published four years ago, and I doubted anyone would miss it. But mostly because of what I saw on the cover: A picture of a couple (heterosexual no less) in a passionate embrace and close to kissing, and in large print in the bottom right, the words, “Love, A Chemical Reaction.” I took it as a sign. So I took it.
I don’t normally steal things, especially from a therapist’s office, or any office, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it during the two minutes before she showed up at the door to get me for our five o’clock appointment. This would be the first of two appointments this week, which again, isn’t a normal occurrence, but I’ve been asking the same question in Slater’s tag line, except my version isn’t aimed at the Geographic audience: So, what is this thing called love, and why the fuck doesn’t it leave me alone?
Aside from her excess introduction about her wedding day, I devour Slater’s words. “We have relied on stories to explain the complexities of love, tales of jealous gods and arrows,” she finally gets to the real story two pages in, “For the first time, new research has begun to illuminate where love lies in the brain, the particulars of its chemical components.” Oh no, here it comes, I think. Now Slater will go into an interview with some sort of scientist who declares an over-generalized dictum about love and its relation to a specific part of the brain, or a specific chemical involved in creating that feeling of being “in love.”
As suspected, in the interview, the scientist-an anthropologist in this case-talks about how she’s spent the last decade of her career conducting experiments with subjects who had been, “madly in love for an average of seven months.” What Helen Fisher found was this: “When each subject looked at his or her loved one, the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure-the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus-lit up.” More than that, Fisher found that “love” was lighting up the specific area of the brain that is home to the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which may explain why people who have recently fallen in love can “stay up all night, watch the sun rise, run a race, ski fast down a slope,” and so on.
Interesting theory, especially since I remember functioning quite well on three hours of sleep when I fell in love, and was subsequently misdiagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder because it was presumed that I was manic. “Can’t we just chalk it up to love?” I remember innocently asking my shrink at the time. She laughed. I was serious. Yet Fisher’s explanation still doesn’t do it for me. During foreplay, I don’t say things like, “Oh yeah, my ventral tegmental area and caudate nucleus are lighting up. Oh God! Here comes the dopamine!” Besides, an increase in dopamine can have various causes, including an extremely high dose of Lithium given to someone who is most certainly not bi-polar, causing her to think she’s in love with someone when it was just a chemically-induced episode of classic mania. I was particularly put off by Fisher’s conclusion that “A woman unconsciously uses orgasms as a way of deciding whether or not a man is good for her,” later adding, “Scientists think the fickle female orgasm may have evolved to help women distinguish Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong.”
Fickle female orgasm? What? I’m sorry, but out of all the orgasms I’ve ever had-and believe me, I’ve had a lot-I don’t recall a single one of them being anything close to fickle. And I’ve never, not once, faked an orgasm. There just wasn’t any reason to. I realize that Fisher was making the point that sometimes a particular person just doesn’t do it for you, but this statement makes a poor assumption about both sexes, that somehow men aren’t evolved enough to know anything but to procreate (I’m not one of those women who thinks all men are scum). Furthermore, it adds to that dangerous stereotype of women who use men to get what they want and then move on. And what does she mean Mr. Right or Mr. Wrong? What about Ms. Right and Ms. Wrong? I guess I should be thankful that gay marriage is legal at least in some states, but at this point in the article, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone-gay or straight-would want to get married.
It doesn’t help when Slater crosses over into that dangerous territory of psychology, and another “experiment” using people in love and people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Yes, that’s what I said, Donatella Marazziti, an Italian professor of psychiatry compared pairs of lovers with OCD patients, looking specifically at the serotonin levels in both subjects. But there’s more. Marazziti also compared those serotonin levels to the ones in a group “free from both passion and mental illness,” and what did she find? Lovers and madmen did not score very high on the serotonin chart compared to their “normal” counterparts. What’s so significant about this? Slater translates for us: “Translation: Love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile. Translation: Love and mental illness may be difficult to tell apart. Translation: Don’t be a fool. Stay away.”
I’d like to leave the chemistry lab for a bit and go back to the real world, where real people, who aren’t crazy, fall in love, and stay that way, even if jobs, kids, and all other life commitments, continuously threaten to dampen the home fires. I can name at least three couples off of the top of my head who met, fell madly in love, and managed to stay committed to one another. Sure, the initial passion-sex four or five times a day, in places where they could easily get caught, the ability to stay up all night and go to work the next day, whistling and forgetting they hate their job-may not last. But who wants to feel that euphoria all the time? Even a natural high must come down, eventually. Slater says it best with this line: “A good sex life can be as strong as Gorilla Glue, but who wants that stuff on your skin?” Speaking as someone who has glued her fingers together with Gorilla Glue while custom-making salt & pepper shakers for Christmas gifts, only prying them apart hours later, and one frustrating freedom attempt after another, I couldn’t agree more.
There’s one more example of love’s chemical reaction that I must add before moving on. It involves Prozac and a near-divorce. In fact, Fisher contends that Prozac “jeopardizes one’s ability to fall in love-and stay in love.” She then gives the example of a couple on the edge of divorce, and when the wife stopped taking Prozac, she started to have orgasms again, renewing her sexual attraction to her husband, “and they’re now in love all over again,” says Fisher. If there’s anything that arouses my suspicions about our scope and handle on mental health more than psychiatrists, it’s the meds they prescribe. I was starting to like this article. Then Slater had to go and talk about Freud.
She begins by reciting Freud’s theory that, for me, is as tired and stale as a chewed up old cigar: “Freud would have said your choice [in a partner or spouse] is influenced by the unrequited wish to bed your mother, if you’re a boy, or your father, if you’re a girl.” I once considered that theory to be somewhat true. Then I discovered sex with women, and that theory went out with the bath water. I do believe-at least partially-in the Jungian concept that “passion is driven by some kind of collective unconscious,” but I didn’t expect this hypothesis to be followed by what many current psychiatrists theorize about love and the people with whom we fall in love. Psychiatrist Thomas Lewis, for instance, thinks that “romantic love is rooted in our earliest infantile experiences with intimacy, with how we felt at the breast, our mother’s face, these things of pure unconflicted [sic] comfort that get engraved in our brain and that we ceaselessly try to recapture as adults,” which would mean that, “Love is reactive, not proactive, it arches backward, which may be why a certain person just feels right Or feels familiar. He or she is familiar He or she has a certain look or smell or sound or touch that activates buried memories.”
At this point, I want to find Slater’s number, call her up, and say, “You’re a writer. Don’t you think we ought to leave this subject up to the real experts?” Because if there’s anyone who knows about unrequited love, it’s a tormented writer. Why can’t we rely on “stories to explain the complexities of love,” or “the tales of jealous gods and arrows”? I honestly don’t see a problem with simply trusting an adage we still come to accept five hundred years later…what fucking fools we mortals be. Why does it have to be about pheromones and sweaty T-shirts? I must back up on that one and relay another experiment concocted by our neighbors in the science building in the effort to understand love, if it must be understood.
At the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Claus Wedekind “asked 49 women to smell T-shirts previously worn by unidentified men with a variety of the genotypes that influence both body odor and immune systems.” Yes, you can tell where this one is going. Asking the women to then “rate which T-shirts smelled the best, which the worst,” Wedekind discovered that the women in the experiment “preferred the scent of a T-shirt worn by a man whose genotype was most different from hers,” concluding that this preference “increases the chance that her offspring will be robust.” Slater says that all of this “seems too good to be true, that we are so hardwired and yet unconscious of the wiring.”
Yes, it is too good to be true, because it isn’t. I have no doubts that part of our unconscious attraction to others involves a scent, because despite Slater’s remark that “no one to my knowledge has ever said, I married him because of his B.O.,” I actually find body odor very attractive. There is, however, a caveat: I only find certain body odors appealing. Does this mean I am going to convert to the religion of sniffing a potential mate’s gym clothes? No. It means that I have no idea what constitutes true love, lasting love, passionate love, or dying love. It means I still don’t know what this thing is. And I’m okay with that.
“Why doesn’t passionate love last?” Slater asks, introducing the section in which she discusses monogamy and our biological need to copulate. I’m not sure which heterosexuals-only world Slater lives in, but some of us don’t always feel the need to copulate, not in the traditional sense at least. I want children, but it doesn’t mean I want a genetic link to my progeny. It also doesn’t mean that I need “enough passion to start breeding,” and once I’ve bonded to my partner in order to raise a “helpless infant,” that I will feel free to meet someone else once the baby “is no longer nursing…left with sisters, aunts, friends.” I can concede to the fact that I’m butchering Slater’s article a bit here, just as I can concede to the idea that it truly does take a village. What I can’t accept is this constant need to explain love, to harness and brand something so feral and unremitting.
“Adam’s Curse,” by Yeats, is perhaps my favorite poem. I don’t think I’ve spent a single day of my life not thinking of that poem since the first time I read it, 11 years ago. It is now, and will forever be, incorporated into my psyche. It is, of course, about love-unrequited love, passionate love, platonic love, and the work it takes to hold it all together. I don’t actually believe that love is work. At least, as I said in a previous post, “not the back-breaking work of coal-mining or construction.” I don’t believe that the passion of a new love will, or should, last, but I do believe in lasting love. We are not just monkeys with typewriters. We are capable of loving and living consciously, of existing in the three lines of “Adam’s Curse” that stirs something in me, something primal, every time I read them:
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
Although I have those lines memorized, I went to the bookshelf to pull out the trusty Norton Anthology of English Literature, just to make sure I was giving the old man credit by double-checking the line breaks. I opened the unmarked pages, only to find myself on the same page I had touched before re-shelving it, and my heart fluttered the moment I saw those three lines staring up at me.
I took it as a sign.