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Moreover, men and women can express sexual desire toward those for whom they feel no obsessive attraction or deep attachment. This emotion system, however, probably also contributes to many cases of date rape and other forms of inappropriate human sexual conduct. In , anthropologists surveyed accounts of societies and found evidence of romantic love in of them. In the other 19, researchers had simply failed to examine this aspect of daily living. Everywhere they looked, they found evidence of this passion.
People sang love songs or composed romantic verse. They performed love magic, carried love charms, or brewed love potions. Some eloped. Some committed suicide or homicide because of unrequited love. In many societies, myths and fables portrayed romantic entanglements.
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Thus, anthropologists believe that romantic attraction is a universal or near-universal human experience. I will go even further: I think romantic love, attraction, is common to all mammals and birds. Naturalists have implicitly acknowledged the existence of this emotion system for over a century. In , Darwin wrote of a female mallard duck who became attracted to a pintail duck, a bird of a different species. Dogs, horses, gorillas, canaries: Males and females of many species assiduously avoid mating with some individuals and resolutely focus their attention on others.
Yet he failed to note that these physical traits must trigger some type of physiological attraction response in the viewer.
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My hypothesis is that feelings of romantic attraction are associated with high levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine and with low levels of serotonin. I arrived at this thesis after culling 13 psycho-physiological characteristics of romantic love from the past 25 years of psychological literature, then matching these traits, where possible, with known properties of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Several of the 13 traits can be so matched with what is now known about brain chemistry.
These traits include the experience of novelty, intrusive thoughts, focused attention, increased energy, and powerful feelings of elation. The love object takes on special meaning. It had a new center, and that center was Marilyn. There is room only for one.
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Increased concentrations of dopamine in the brain are associated with exposure to a novel environment. Increased levels of dopamine are also associated with heightened attention, motivation, and goal-directed behaviors. These parallels suggest that levels of dopamine are rising in the brain as a lover focuses on a beloved. Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors which increase active levels of the chemical messenger serotonin are currently the agents of choice in treating most forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD. As intrusive thinking is a form of obsessive behavior, I have speculated for some time that low levels of serotonin are responsible for the intrusive thinking of romantic passion.
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These researchers studied 20 students who reported that they had recently fallen in love, 20 patients with unmedicated OCD, and 20 control subjects. When possessed by love, we tend to focus our attention on the positive qualities of the beloved, and to overlook or falsely appraise negative traits. Infatuated men and women also focus on events, objects, songs, letters, and other things that they have come to associate with the beloved. An unpublished survey I designed and administered to American and Japanese men and women illustrates this point: 72 percent of men and 84 percent of women remembered trivial things that their beloved said; 82 percent of men and 90 percent of women said they replayed these precious moments as they mused.
As we saw in discussing the experience of novelty, increased levels of central dopamine are associated with focused attention. Moreover, we know that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is associated with increased memory for new stimuli.
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The focused attention of the infatuated man or woman appears much like imprinting on the beloved—an indication that increased concentrations of norepinephrine are involved. We are also subject to abrupt mood swings. If the relationship suffers a setback, we may fall into listlessness, brooding, and feelings of despair. Increased concentrations of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain have been shown to be associated with excessive energy, euphoria, loss of appetite, increased mental activity, hyperactivity, and decreased need for sleep—suggesting that these neurotransmitters contribute to the labile feelings associated with romantic attraction.
The remaining nine psycho-physiological traits that are commonly associated with romantic love do not as yet appear to have any direct correlation with dopamine, norepinephrine, or serotonin. So I would expect that these gradations of feeling are associated with different levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, as well as other less primary neurochemicals. To try to pinpoint the brain circuitry associated with passionate romantic love, my colleagues Gregory V.
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Simpson, Lucy L. Brown, and Seppho Ahlfors, neuroscientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, and I placed four infatuated individuals in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging fMRI machine and showed them photographs of their love object, as well as photographs of another individual, as a control. We have not yet conclusively analyzed these data, but I anticipate that areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, sectors of the anterior cingulate region, the nucleus accubens, the hypothalmus, and regions of the brain stem will be involved.
We are continuing this investigation of romantic attraction with Arthur P. Attraction, as an emotion system, evolved to perform essential functions in the mating process.
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It enables individuals to select between potential partners, conserve and focus their mating energy, and maintain this focus until insemination occurs. But for humans, whom we fall in love with is an entirely different matter, one largely shaped by cultural forces. For example, timing is essential; men and women fall in love when they are ready. Also, most men and women are attracted to someone who is somewhat mysterious, unfamiliar. This may have evolved as a mechanism to counteract inbreeding.
But the primary factors that ignite the romantic blaze are our childhood experiences. For example, some people want a partner who will debate with them, or educate them, or mask aspects of their personality they do not admire in themselves. It evolved along with the rest of your body. Romantic love can be joyous, but it also fuels human jealousy and possessiveness.
As an emotion system, attraction almost certainly contributes to modern patterns of stalking, crimes of passion, and the incidence of suicide and clinical depression associated with romantic rejection. In social mammals, these behaviors include maintaining proximity and displaying separation anxiety when apart. In pair-bonding species, the male often defends the territory, and partners feed and groom one another and share parental chores.
Among humans, men and women also report feelings of closeness, security, peace, and social comfort with a long-term partner, as well as mild euphoria when in contact and separation anxiety when apart for unusual periods. The work of Sue Carter a behavioral endocrinologist at the University of Maryland , Tom Insel a neuroscientist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta , and their colleagues has shown, however, that the primary hormones involved in the production of attachment behaviors in monogamous prairie voles are vasopressin and oxytocin.
Insel and his collaborators have recently studied a gene associated with the receptor binding vasopressin. Because the gene family that includes vasopressin and oxytocin is found in all mammals and birds, and because humans share variations of these basic bodily substances, it seems probable that vasopressin and oxytocin are also involved in feelings of attachment in men and women. And there is no question that attachment is a distinct neural system. Spouses in arranged marriages and long marriages frequently maintain a visible attachment to one another, express feelings of attachment, and display mutual parental duties—without displaying or reporting feelings of attraction or sexual desire for this mate.
Marital or other long-term attachment is a hallmark of humanity.