Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eros and Science

Following on from Eric's post about eros and my own about medical metaphors and the science of love, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the neurobiology of love because, although this topic is not directly related to the romance genre, both have something to tell us about how couples fall in love and form stable pair bonds.

Despite the fact that 'love has myriad variations [...] neuroscientists believe that the basic human emotions and motivations arise from distinct systems of neural activity, networks that derive from mammalian precursors' (Fisher 2006: 88). Fisher goes on to explain that she believes that romantic love is just one of
three discrete, interrelated emotion/motivation systems that all birds and mammals have evolved to direct courtship, mating, reproduction, and parenting. The other two are the sex drive and attachment [...] each interacts with the other two in myriad combinations to produce the range of emotions, motivations, and behaviors associated with all types of love. (2006: 89)
The 'three basic mating drives' (2006: 102) are as follows:

(1) 'The sex drive (libido or lust) is characterized by the craving for sexual gratification; it is often directed toward many partners' (2006: 89).*

(2) 'Attraction (the mammalian/avian counterpart to human romantic love) is characterized by increased energy, focused attention on a specific mate, obsessive following, affiliative gestures, possessive mate guarding, and motivation to win a preferred mating partner [...] In humans, the developed form of animal attraction is known as romantic love, obsessive love, passionate love, or being in love' (2006: 90). **

(3) 'Attachment is characterized in birds and mammals by mutual territory defense and/or nest-building, mutual feeding and grooming, maintenance of close proximity, separation anxiety, shared parental chores [...]. In humans, partner attachment is known as companionate love. Human attachment is associated with the above mammalian traits, as well as feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union with a long-term mate' (2006: 90). ***

The three usually interact, though in differing proportions at different times and for different people, however I have the sense that 'eros', as discussed by Eric, broadly overlaps with what Fisher terms 'romantic love'.

Fisher suggests that 'romantic love is most likely highly addictive' (2006: 100) and she also mentions that 'People fall in love with individuals who are somewhat mysterious, perhaps in part because novelty elevates the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine (2006: 102). Novelty can also increase sexual activity because the 'Increasing dopamine associated with romantic love can stimulate a cascade of reactions, including the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire [...] In fact, elevated activity of dopamine generally increases sex drive, sexual arousal, and sexual performance in humans' (Fisher 2006: 103).

Unfortunately for individuals who crave the feelings created by romantic love, while 'Romantic love can be sustained in a long-term romantic relationship [...] it generally becomes less intense' (Fisher 2006: 99-100). A while ago I quoted from Esther Perel who noticed the problems caused by diminishing romantic love in relationships and proposed a solution:
A fundamental conundrum is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, at the same time we seek a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond our ordinary lives. The challenge, then, for couples and therapists, is to reconcile the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.
It's often assumed that intimacy and trust must exist before sex can be enjoyed, but for many women and men, intimacy -- more precisely, the familiarity inherent in intimacy -- actually sabotages sexual desire. When the loved one becomes a source of security and stability, he/she can become desexualized. (2003)
Her solution is to retain mystery within a marriage/committed relationship because:
There is in the experience of love an experience of security, of predictability, of safety, a kind of grounding and anchoring. And eroticism thrives on something very different. It thrives on the unknown and the mysterious, on the unexpected. It's not what you want in a long-term, secure relationship. [...] Fantasies are rarely egalitarian, I can tell you that. Friendship is a different story. Best friends share everything, talk about everything. And when you're lovers, you want mystery. I've never in my life called my husband my best friend. (Salon, page 1 and page 2)
I wonder if the erotic, however one defines it, is inextricably linked to the issue of identity. Traditionally, the erotic ‘object’ is ‘the Other’, a mystery. That mystery and sense of difference, based on lack of intimacy and knowledge of the other, automatically preserved the distance between the two lovers. If we think about courtly love, the woman was often adored from a distance, or was obliged by society to strive to maintain a distance, which would lead to her lover thinking of her as cruel, distant, elusive and yet despite this (or perhaps actually because of it) desirable.

It seems to me that for centuries many people have defined themselves by contrasting themselves with an ‘Other’. While the differences between sexual, class, racial and religious groups have been emphasised and exaggerated, in-group differences have tended be minimised. Men, for example, have been associated with ‘masculine’ characteristics and behaviours, while women have been associated with the opposing ones. This automatically builds in a sense of difference and distance, and preserves identity, and in the context of romance I took a quick look at race (including the appeal of sheiks in romance) a while ago.

Quite how 'other' the Other can be varies, but if a sense of otherness underlies what's erotic, if it's a case of 'opposites attract', it is easy to see why intimacy and ‘domestication’ might lead to a loss of eroticism. They make the distant, exciting ‘Other’ seem dull, mundane, perhaps rather similar to the self and certainly not mysterious.

It struck me that the preservation of mystery advocated by Perel is, in some ways, the emotional equivalent of high mimetic love scenes between a perfectly beautiful heroine and the dangerous, mysterious hero she must tame. Dramatic conflict, big actions and big differences do ramp up the emotion and approach Frye’s ‘high mimetic’, which ‘seems to be connected [...] with [...] myth’ (Frye 2000: 51). What Perel describes isn't, however, the emotional equivalent of the earthy realism Angel and I were discussing in the comments attached to my post about food in Joyce's The Veil of Night. There I quoted from a post at Lust Bites, written by Nikki Magennis, who argues that ideal beauty may in fact be less sexy than the intimacy and variety of flawed individuality:
Really, all Beauty is fit for is preserving behind glass. It’s dazzling, sure, and we shrink before it. [...] Sexy is about revealing our real self, gloriously flawed. It’s not about struggling to erase all the signs that show one is human in the pursuit of a mathematically perfect ideal.
What Magennis is doing perhaps, is redefining beauty so that it can include the beauty that differs from the ideal. Similarly Cristina Nehring agrees with Perel that difference is central to eroticism but suggests much less dramatic, striking solutions to preserving it:
We must be two before we can be one, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. To merge most passionately, we must first be defiantly distinct. The question becomes how to maintain such distinctness in a long-term relationship. [...] Too quickly we assume we understand the persons we love, and put them into categories. Because we know how they take their coffee or turn over in bed, we think we know their emotional or moral turbulences, their secret judgments, recurrent temptations. It is revelatory -- because re-estranging -- to encounter our closest companions in contexts unlike those in which we usually confer. The novelist Siri Hustvedt writes of the thrall that overcomes her when she sees her husband, Paul Auster, at a public ceremony. Many a tired husband is shocked when he suddenly sees his wife dance -- or flirt, or fight, or take command, or write a poem.
We all, as Walt Whitman said, contain multitudes. It is salutary to remember this, salutary to encourage this, salutary -- even -- to know this is encouraged, so that we remain unafraid to surprise.
This type of difference is one which is not destroyed by intimacy but may in fact even be enhanced by it. It’s perhaps about looking closely and seeing variety in the minutiae, glorious difference in the particular talents and abilities possessed by each individual. In recognising the difference which results from individuality, rather than from the contrast between archetypes, it perhaps becomes easier to find the erotic in the mundane, the small gestures, the tiny differences that persist even in intimacy.

  • Fisher, Helen, 2006. ‘The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice’, in The New Psychology of Love, 2nd edition, ed. Robert J. Sternberg & Karin Weis (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 87-115. A pdf of the paper (as well as pdfs of other papers by Helen Fisher) may be found at Helen Fisher's website.
  • Frye, Northrop, 2000. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, with a new forword by Harold Bloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press). First published in 1957.
  • Perel, Esther, 2003. 'In Search of Erotic Intelligence: Reconciling Our Desire for Comfortable Domesticity and Hot Sex', Utne Reader.

* I watched the Eurovision 2007 entries and Poland's entry, by The Jet Set seems to focus on the libidinal aspects of human relationships.

** Successful romantic love finds its expression in the song by Greece's Sarbel, in which the singer believes that his beloved, Maria, is unique and supremely desirable. Given her name and the setting/choreography, I can't help but wonder if this song is paying tribute to West Side Story (though without the tragic outcome). Fisher also goes on to describe the devastating consequences for rejected romantic lovers, and this situation is the one sung about by Finland's Hanna Pakarinen. Rejected lovers often feel rage as well as suicidal urges.

*** Mary Wells, singing 'My Guy', seems to me to be describing the comfort and closeness of companionate love.

Seeing as I've mentioned so many other Eurovision entries, I'd like to mention just one more. Bulgaria's Elitsa Todorova & Stoyan Yankoulov performed a song which made me think of the vampires and fallen angels which seems so popular in romance at the moment.

The picture is by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, from Wikipedia.


  1. Oh, wow. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I love that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. It
    feminds me of Terry Pratchett's "Hogfather," where Death says that, in such a chaotic, amazing universe, only humans could have invented dullness. "What imaginations they have."

    I find I can't resist the impulse to quote the rest:


    'Yes, but people don't think about that,' said Susan. Somewhere there was a bed...




    There's, honestly, no such thing as a dull person, I don't think. But somehow human brains pigeon-hole people and assume after a while that they're nothing more than the rough draft of them that exists inside our heads. I've tried to stop myself doing it, and it's amazing what a struggle it can be. To comprehend reality, instead of reducing it down to a paper puppet in my head.

    The time when a relationship settles into a comfortable routine is a sort of delusion, really. Like the way people lock their doors and are certain of safety that is by no means guaranteed.

    I imagine that keeping the mystery alive in a relationship might take nothing more than the difficult task of trying to really *see* one's partner. To apprecaite the "signs that show one is human" in them, including the ability to "contain multitudes."

    I don't know. But I certainly look forward to trying it out myself one day. ;)

    Oh! A snippet that suits your topic: there was an interesting National Geographic article Loligo mentioned the Valentine's Day before last. I like the post so much, I put it in my LJ memories. She summarized it by saying that "Aside from some details about specific brain areas that are activated when you're "madly in love", it seems to still be the same basic story as when I was teaching social psychology six years ago: the swooning, passionate kind of love is all dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and risk-taking. The long-term, committed kind of love is all about oxytocin, the same calm, comforting hormone that promotes parent-child bonding -- and can relax you so much that you fall asleep."

  2. (accidentally posted before I finished my thought!)

    ..so it seems like the calming hormone is sort of conspiring together with the human capacity for boredom in the midst of the extraordinary.

    How would one go about getting the dopamine flowing again, though? Sneak up behind your partner and shout "Boooga-booga!"? Cultivate irresponsibility? Practice a brooding, mile-long stare? Grow a little soul patch? Hmm. ;)

  3. ((facepalm))

    That was me, btw.

  4. Despite that I'm a college dropout, I'm fascinated by brain chemisty. And every time I come across an article about that subject in regards to the emotion we call 'love' these lyrics by Sting pop into my head:

    Straight to My Heart:

    A sub atomic chain
    Will maybe galvanize the brain
    A biochemic trance
    Will eliminate romance

    But why ever should we care
    When there are arrows in the air
    Formed by lovers' ancient art
    That go straight to my heart

    A future sugar coated pill
    Would give our lovers time to kill
    I think they're working far too much
    For the redundancy of touch

    But what will make me yours
    Are a million deadly spores
    Formed by lovers' ancient art
    That go straight to my heart


    Thanks for the great article. Much tasty food for thought.

  5. Angel, re 'somehow human brains pigeon-hole people', I suppose it's a general adaptation which helps us make sense of the complexity of the world, and although I didn't spend that long looking this up, I found some articles about the evolutionary mechanisms which would encourage species to develop the ability to categorise (e.g. this, which looks at pigeons (seems apt, since we talk about 'pigeon-holing')) and

    Because of humans’ necessary interactions with their social environment, the human brain has evolved in a such a way that social perceivers are able to cope with the intrinsic complexity of the social world. From this interaction and evolution have emerged, among other cognitive abilities, efficient face recognition, cheater detection, and one’s own ingroup recognition. These abilities certainly provided an adaptive advantage during our evolutionary past. As a result, human brains are now able to recall a large number of individuals and events that allow them to deal with complex social situations. One of the most effective means of achieving this is to segregate the world into categories. (Labiouse & French - I didn't understand much of the rest of that paper, but the particular bit I've quoted did make sense to me).

    Of course, I think people can take categorisation too far, and that can limit them. Poetry, on the other hand, often promotes the breaking down of categories through the use of metaphor, which compares and contrasts objects which are usually kept in separate categories.

    I wonder too if people keep some areas less categorised than others. For example, an individual might be quick to categorise people but might find infinite variety and interest in the moves made during a football match, or someone might find the details of a mystery novel unique and interesting, but consider all romances 'the same'.

    I took a look at Loligo's post, and she says there that

    even though we were both having a great time, I don't think either one of us was ever swoony after that. I'm not talking about passion (because OMG teh hot!), I mean, you know, the insane stuff. The stuff where you can't stop thinking about your beloved when you're supposed to be doing other things, or where you can't sleep at night because your heart is racing just picturing your beloved, or any of that dopamine-mediated crap.

    If Fisher's right, then they skipped romantic love (dopamine and norepinephrine) and had a combination of attachment (oxytocin and vasopressin) and libido/lust ('the androgens, particularly testosterone, are central to desire in both men and women' (Fisher 2006: 89).

    How would one go about getting the dopamine flowing again, though?

    Well, if lust can be stimulated through increasing testosterone levels, that might do something to break through the comfortable feelings created by oxytocin. And scientists have already been testing testosterone patches on post-menopausal women. That wouldn't bring back the really intense 'falling in love' sensations, though.

    R, thanks for those lyrics. They're good at pointing out that, however much we learn about the brain, there's always going to be a gap between our scientific knowledge about hormones etc and our lived experience. The science in no way invalidates the experience or makes it any less special.

    Incidentally, given that I'd been blogging about the 'food of love', I was really intrigued to come across a paper which suggests that there's biological evidence which supports theological writings about fasting and meat consumption. St Augustine, for example

    may have consciously or unconsciously believed that illicit desires and lust, in its various forms, was associated with meat-eating. Commentaries from the Judeo-Christian perspective concur with this irrevocable subtlety, “Israel grumbled at God through Moses out of their lust for meat. The lust of the flesh is the match that ignites anger and the tongue as fire. Self-gratification is one of the catalysts of lust” (10). Other Jewish and Talmudic sources make similar associations between meat and lust (11). (2006: 5)

    Bishay concludes that they

    may have inadvertently stumbled at an early, almost unconscious, correlation between the need for sexual abstinence with the prohibition of cholesterol-containing animal foods. But one should not fully embrace the Big Mac as a love potion so readily. Scientific evidence suggests that only HDL cholesterol can facilitate Cupid’s game. Interestingly, the Roman poet Ovid in his work The Art of Love selected nuts - currently being advocated by the health community as foods capable of lowering LDL and raising HDL cholesterol levels - as an effective and powerful aphrodisiac. (2006: 6)

    A pdf of Rami Bishay's (2006) 'Lent, Lust and the Libido: What Patristic Theology Taught us About Testosterone Biosynthesis', Hypothesis, 4.2: 4-7 can be found here.

  6. Thanks for such an interesting post.

    I think the thing about familiarity within a relationship is that it's illusory. We're never *entirely* familiar with a partner, because no person is a constant. Both partners are perpetually in flux, and so is the relationship itself.

    Plus I'm reminded of the image of two people in a relationship facing out towards the world side by side, rather than staring at each other. I've put that clumsily, but you get the idea! For me, once I found my partner, I felt I was part of a larger whole - now let's explore the world together! It's not so much finding each other fascinating, as looking at the world through each other's eyes.

    Now that I think of it, that sounds a bit creepy...!

  7. It's not so much finding each other fascinating, as looking at the world through each other's eyes.

    Now that I think of it, that sounds a bit creepy...!

    Maybe if you think about it literally, except that that's what we do almost literally when we look at photographs or film and it's pretty much what readers are doing every time we read a novel, isn't it? We're seeing the world through the eyes of the narrator and/or the main character(s).

    And, now that I think about it, the way a lot of us relate to books parallels the process of falling in love. Some people have an insatiable appetite, a lust for text. They have to read, even if they know that what they're going to read isn't particularly well-written. These readers are the sort who'll read cereal packets if there's nothing else available.

    Then there's the romantic rush of finding a new love - that excitement at having found a perfect book, the way you can't put it down, you think about it, perhaps even lose sleep over it, tell all your friends about how wonderful it is, possibly even write fan-fic about it or visit the place(s) where it's set.

    And then, if you're the sort of person who falls into companionate love, you put it on your Keeper Shelf, perhaps re-reading it and finding it comfortable. Or maybe you even re-read it and find new things to love about each time you read and so retain a little bit of the sparkle of romantic love even after having been in a relationship with that book for years?

    Some people don't dare re-read books they've loved because they worry that it might spoil their memories, just as seeing your first love 20 years on and finding out that he's losing his hair, is a bit stupid etc would possibly take the shine off your romantic memories of youthful infatuation.

  8. Laura,

    I realize this is OT from this post, but I'd be very interested in your views and/or research on the themes of 'star-crossed lovers' and those who are 'destined to be lovers, no matter what'.

    Also, what is the accepted genre differentiation between 'romance' and 'love story'?

    Thanks for all the great posts you've already provided!

  9. I'd be very interested in your views and/or research on the themes of 'star-crossed lovers' and those who are 'destined to be lovers, no matter what'

    I haven't written or thought very much about these topics, but I did write a post about marriage where I speculated about the idea of 'soul-mates', which is a term I've seen used to describe the people who are 'destined' to be lovers (though I have the impression that some people use the term in different ways). In Bet Me Jenny Crusie contrasts various theories about love, including one character who believes in the fairy tale idea that one day your prince will come, and which also includes the idea that fate has brought the hero and heroine together. The description of the novel on her site says that:

    Logical Min thinks love is a fairy tale.
    Rational Cal thinks forever's a myth.
    Implacable Fate thinks they're meant for each other.

    In general, I think this theme turns up more often in paranormal romances, where fated mates etc are sometimes part of the world-building.

    what is the accepted genre differentiation between 'romance' and 'love story'

    I wrote a post a while ago about the definition of a 'romance' but basically a 'love story' is any story about people in love. It doesn't have to end happily. In the UK authors of novels about love stories are in the Romantic Novelists' Association. They don't have a strict definition of what a 'romantic novel' is, but it has to have a love story. In the US, the Romance Writers of America have defined 'romance' and that's a large subset of 'love-stories' where the love story is at the centre of the novel and there's an 'optimistic' ending. Pamela Regis has described the basic structural elements of a romance novel in her A Natural History of the Romance Novel (excerpt available at Amazon).

    So, to get back to your question about 'star-crossed lovers', they won't appear in a romance, because there isn't a happy ending for them. They do appear in romantic novels.

  10. Isn't the Toulouse Lautrec painting you chose of two women?
    A strange choice, as you would think there would be even less 'otherness' between same-sex lovers.


  11. I really liked your article and the photo is super. Thanks you.