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Three Types of Love

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April 24, 2007

Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has an interesting theory about love. Based on brain-imaging studies and findings in neurochemistry, she suggests that what we call "love" is actually a blend of three different, independent mechanisms, each of which is under the control of a different set of neurotransmitters.

Each of these behaviors evolved because it helps the species survive:

(1) short-term, non partner-specific sexual desire, or "lust". Lasts long enough for conception and is controlled by testosterone. (Yes, women have testosterone too, and it's not the amount of testosterone that counts; it's the ratio compared to the other sex hormones.)

(2) intermediate-term, partner-specific attraction or "romantic love" Lasts about 9 months or so (or long enough for gestation), and is controlled by dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as low levels of seratonin.

(3) long-term, partner-specific attachment or "bonding", which last for years (or long enough for pregnancy to occur) and is controlled by the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin.

It may seem like a discouragingly mechanical way to look at something as wonderful as love, but it has it's interesting aspects.

For one thing, we're all familiar with lust, and we men are familiar with the testosterone-fueled version of it--intense and general. We don't much care who we satisfy the urge with. Middle-aged women injected with testosterone tend to act the same way, so maybe it isn't that we're just indiscriminate assholes.

"Romantic" love is marked by its obsessive nature. This is the one that keeps you up day and night and leaves you all moony and star struck, makes you write poetry and send flowers, think about her all the time. That's sweet, but those are exactly the effects that dopamine and norepinephrine have on the brain, neurotransmitters associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. People who suffer with OCD also have low levels of seratonin, and a profile of their brain chemicals look just like the profiles of people who are romantically in love.

Dopamine, norepinephrine, seratonin--even testosterone--are simple chemicals compared to vasopressin and oxytocin. But then, lust and obsession are simple processes compared to the complexities of forming a relationship stable enough to last for years. Nature's primary goal is to get a man and woman together to reproduce and have a child, something she does very well. We're still working out the rest of the details.

Posted by rabbit at April 24, 2007 2:32 AM

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