The Chemistry of Love
Published in Marie Claire
Here is a love story.
For John and Jane it was love at first sight, and for the next five days they rushed around in a frenzy. They travelled to Rhode Island from New York to go sailing and on the way stopped off to visit an old friend of Jane’s. Jane’s friend took one look at her and asked, “How long has Jane been acting like this?”
“Acting like what?” queried John. “Not sleeping, talking all the time making plans to sail to Georgia, that sort of thing.” replied the friend. John replied, “She’s a little high, but so am I. We’re in love.” Then the friend turned to Jane and said, “Jane when did you stop taking your lithium?” It transpired that Jane was a manic-depressive and had not taken her lithium for two weeks, “You may be in love,” said the friend, “But I think she’s manic again.”
Here is a love theory; the euphoric rush experienced by couples falling in love can be attributed to phenylethylamine or PEA which scientists believe they have identified as the “love” chemical. PEA is similar in composition and in effect to amphetamines or speed, and the theory is that the romantic heart flutterings so beloved of the poets may in fact be merely a chemical reaction.
The evidence suggests that how people experience romantic love is affected, and possibly even determined, by the biochemical processes occurring in the brain; the level of chemicals like PEA may affect how intensely and how often people fall in love, and how enduring their relationships turn out to be. It may also account for some of the problems that people suffer emotionally; a tendency to fall in love at the drop of a hat, and often with totally unsuitable people, may be accounted for by the presence of too much PEA in the brain. If the theory is true it should be possible to help people with emotional difficulties by manipulating their brain chemistry with drug treatments; an opportunity with some unnerving implications.
The best known aspect of the love chemistry research was the discovery that PEA was present in large quantities in chocolate. This was picked up by the popular press and turned into “the chocolate theory of love”- with speculation that eating chocolate might produce romantic feelings. Tests were done with researchers diligently gobbling up pounds and pounds of Cadbury’s milk chocolate, but there was in fact no evidence that the PEA in the chocolate actually found it’s way to the brain. So you can carry eating chocolate to cheer you up but don’t expect it to work as an aphrodisiac.
These days we take it for granted that romantic love is of central importance in our lives, and a great deal of time and effort is spent finding and dating potential lovers. The experience of romantic love is an an integral part of our twentieth century culture. We assume it is ours by right and love is a central focus for literature, art and poetry as well as a relentless theme in advertising.
This has not always been the case of course; for most of the world most of the time, romantic love comes way down on the agenda. Historically people have married for much more pragmatic reasons; at its most fundamental marriage exists as a way of preserving the traditional structure of society. Women marry for security, financial support and social standing; men marry to preserve their blood line and legitimate their heirs. Few societies before our own have had the luxury of marrying for love. Now we regard it as a right, and we feel let down if romance goes wrong or marriage fails to live up to the impossible ideal of enduring passionate love.
The very concept of romantic love has been criticised, dismissed as a social construct, a dilettante pre-occupation of the more leisured civilization of the twentieth century. Freud argued that romantic feelings were ultimately neurotic, a way to sublimate our basic sex drives which could never be fully satisfied in civilized society. And some feminists have portrayed romantic love as a fundamentally sexist plot to distract women from challenging men’s dominance in society. Now the poets, sociologists and psychologists have had their say, along come the biochemists with a whole new theory.
There is already a mass of evidence which links emotions and chemical reactions in the body; depression in particular has long been treated effectively with drugs. So it was only a matter of time before someone tried to analsyse the chemical basis for the greatest emotion of all; love. Dr Michael Liebowitz, head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, discusses the research in his book, The Chemistry of Love . He is a clinical psychologist, and the love story at the beginning of this article is the case history of one of his patients.
Liebowitz believes that a better understanding of our chemical selves will help us in forming better, more loving and more permanent relationships. He even anticipates, “a futuristic dating service, where potential partners would be matched for biological compatibility.”
Such prospects are a long way off and research into this area is still inconclusive, but since some emotional and psychological problems are already effectively treated with drugs there seems no reason why “love” problems could not also respond to drug treatments.
According to the theory propounded by Liebowitz and his colleague Dr Donald F. Klein, the “love” chemicals divide into two distinct types, similar in composition and effect to drug induced experiences. The first chemical to kick in is PEA, the “excitant amine” which produces all the symptoms of intense attraction, a fast beating heart, fluttering stomach, hot flushes, exhilaration and euphoria. Or as John Donne described it so eloquently in his 17th century, “Elegies”,
“…thou dist dart thy fires
Into our blouds, inflaming our desires,
And made’st us sigh and glow, and pant and burn..”
Liebowitz compares this initial euphoric state to the effects of amphetamines, which are very close in structure to PEA.
It is not yet clear which comes first; whether the presence of a large quantity of PEA in the brain can create a greater propensity to fall in love, or whether falling in love precipitates a rush of PEA – or for that matter whether it is possible to produce a PEA love potion and turn romance into another consumer choice. In any case, this state of exhilaration never lasts, and after a relatively short period of time the lovers come down to earth, unable to sustain the “high” which attracted them in the first place.
Other researchers have discovered that PEA is produced in large quantities by parachutists when they jump (tested by measuring PEA levels in the urine before and after the jump.) It may actually be the sensation of falling, the feeling of tremendous release and a potent mixture of fear and pleasure which are the key elements when a new and exciting relationship is “getting off the ground.”
The drug analogy continues, with the suggestion that what Liebowitz calls “Special Romantic States”, mystical peaks experienced by lovers which transcend every day reality, may be compared to psychedelic drug experiences. These are moments, says Liebowitz, when “a person begins to break through his or her own normal ego boundaries and experience a sense of or desire for oneness with a partner. Newly formed couples who gaze into each others eyes for long periods of time may experience this.”
One of the great love marriages of the century, between James Joyce and Nora Barnacle is described in Brenda Maddox’s new biography, Nora. They met by chance on the Dublin streets, and despite the fact that Joyce could barely see without his glasses, he knew immediately that she was the woman for him. Later he wrote, “You are my only love. You have me completely in your power.” Maddox comments, “It was part of the genius of James Joyce myopically to pick from the crowd the woman essential to his art.” What inspired rush of PEA prompted Joyce at that moment?
The next stage of love is the “endorphin” stage. Endorphins are the recently discovered natural body opiates, produced by the body to combat pain, and create a state of contentment. This is what Liebowitz terms the “attachment” phase when the first flush of passion fades and the lovers are happy to settle down and get to know each other better, spending cosy evenings in front of the television, instead of planning wild exotic nights travelling down the Nile.
The endorphin effect also creates a sense of “addiction” to the relationship, and accounts for the “separation anxiety” experienced by couples who have to spend time apart – once the object of comfort and security has been removed the endorphins shut down and the lovers suffer from all the symptoms of opiate withdrawal; paranoia, anxiety and pain. Equally couples need the fresh stimuli of parting and meeting again, or even fights and making up to create novelty, stimulate the onrush of PEA and maintain interest in the relationship.
These phases are basically the “normal” progression of a relationship – but in reality of course, things don’t always work out like that. Which is where the chemical theory starts to get really interesting, and where Liebowitz’s work as a clinical psychologist comes in.
Many couples never get further than the “attraction” phase; once that’s over they fall out of love and never make it to the cosy endorphin stage. Once a love affair has crashed some individuals suffer a massive reaction, similar to a form of chemical “burnout” with symptoms comparable to those experienced by addicts coming down from amphetamines; depression, insomnia and over-eating.
Some people never get beyond the first stage; they fall in love constantly and often indiscriminately, and the relationship always falls apart after a few months. Liebowitz suggests that these people may actually be addicted to romance, and suffering from a clinical disorder called “hysteroid dysphoria” or lovesickness.
These unfortunates, (mostly women, wouldn’t you know) experience, “repeated depressed moods in response to feeling rejected. …they characteristically spend much of their time seeking approval, applause, attention and praise, especially of a romantic nature, to which they respond with an elevation of mood and energy.” According to Liebowitz, “Anyone over the age of fifteen who is ready to marry a person he or she met the day before is probably a hysteroid dysphoric.”
Problems can also occur for people with too strong “attachment” needs, who are unable to end an unhappy relationship because they are afraid to be alone. Liebowitz claims that he has successfully treated patients suffering from both types of problems by administering specific anti-depressant drugs which adjust the chemical balance of their emotions. He quotes a number of case histories of women who constantly fell in love with the “wrong” men, but succeeded in establishing more stable, longer lasting relationships, after treatment with anti-depressants.
It may be that many of the great tragic romances of literature, Romeo and Juliet, for example, or Abelard and Heloise, maintained their intense love because they never had a chance to move into the “attachment” phase. Had Romeo and Juliet, Hero and Leander, or Cathy and Heathcliff had chance to settle down together in front of the telly, their relationship may never have survived. The fact that their love affairs were frustrated and they only saw each other under difficult circumstances meant that they always maintained the initial “high” and never became familiar enough with each other to move into the endorphin stage.
Perhaps chemistry could account for the extraordinary tale of Justin and Ursula Behrens, described in The Monument by Justin’s brother, Tim Behrens. It is a true (and twentieth century) story of lovers who were so utterly obsessed with each other that they gradually cut off all contact with the rest of the world, seeking constant stimulation from art and travel, culminating in Ursula’s messy suicide in the wilds of Africa, followed soon after by her young lover. Perhaps both of them were afflicted by megadoses of PEA and treatment could have helped them live more normal-though less romantic- lives.
And there’s the rub, as Liebowitz himself acknowledges. There are worrying implications inherent in the idea of manipulating emotional states. Do we really want everybody to be in a Brave New World state of mindless soma all the time? If we started treating all individuals with emotional instability or abnormality we might find ourselves curing all the artists and poets, many of whom appear to survive – and create – on a knife’s edge between genius and madness. Liebowitz muses that he has often wondered if all the existential writers who struggled to find meaning in life were just chronically depressed. Life could get very boring if we were all carefully chemically matched with potential partners to avoid heartbreak.
And it could get positively chaotic if we were able to administer the mischievous love drug of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”
“The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees,”
Or we might just end up with the dramatic effects of Love Potion No. 9, (written by Lieber & Stoller and first sung by the Clovers in 1959.)
“I didn’t know if it was day or night
I started kissing everything in sight
But when I kissed a cop at 34th and Vine
He broke my little bottle of
Love Potion Number 9.”