Science not fiction: Your chemical romance


For centuries lovers, Don Juans, Mary Janes and playas have been stymied by the all-encompassing riddle that tricks us all – love. But science may have solved the mystery behind romance, love, and the yucky stuff in between, writes Farouq Manji.

FALLING IN LOVE is a complex and phenomenal process. It may involve physical attraction, emotional attachment, or a yacht in Monaco. But some scientists believe that our feelings, and to a large extent, behaviour is governed by chemical interactions within our brain.

Central to this theory are compounds such as oxytocin. Historically, oxytocin has been associated with childbirth, however more recent evidence suggests that it has a role as a cuddling drug.

Let’s start at the beginning. When boy meets girl (or any variation of the above), they date, dance, and eventually participate in the nocturnal horizontal mambo. At this point, oxytocin levels in both sexes, shoot through the roof. It has been postulated that this is partly responsible for the post-cotial feeling of well-being.

Oxytocin levels are further maintained by intimacy – touching, kissing, and surviving the in-laws. The chemical in turn promotes this type of bonding behaviour. Professor Gareth Leng of the University of Edinburgh believes this initial surge of excitement rewires the brain, creating permanent bonds with their partners.

This phenomenon is exemplified in the North American Prairie Vole. Prairie Voles mate for life, and this bond is established over a frantic 48 hours of sexual activity – no surprise considering it’s their first experience. When oxytocin receptors in the Vole’s brain are blocked, the males don’t bond – they move on and try to mate with someone else.

This effect has also been noted in human studies, however not to the same extent. Studies have shown that romantic attachment is rewarded by an increase in oxytocin levels in our brain. Women usually have more oxytocin levels than men, and therefore exhibit this type of behaviour on a more regular basis.

Furthermore, during sexual intercourse, female oxytocin levels increase significantly. The oxytocin response in men however, seems to be much more uneven. It may or may not shoot up during sex, and is variably prolonged. Based upon this evidence, some relationship experts have concluded that this may account for the differing one-night-stand behaviour between the sexes. They fail to consider, however, that men are also jerk-like in nature.

After the first few months, the picture becomes muddled. Dr Helen Fisher explains that oxytocin levels decline approximately eight months after the initial romance period. This may attribute to a drop in interest between partners – and the subsequent stagnation of the relationship. Oxytocin levels can be kept higher with excitement – like Homer and Marge or Carrie and Mr Big.

Oxytocin is also implicated in other pair-bonding scenarios. Levels increase when men or women are shown pictures of their long-term partner. And oxytocin levels increase in women when they are shown pictures of their children.

So, women become all lovey-dovey because of oxytocin, but what about men? Studies have shown that men have their ‘chemical’ as well. In one study, men were tricked into thinking they were coming in for a simple saliva test, whereupon they were confronted by an attractive assistant. Men who were attracted to her had a high boost of testosterone in their bodies.
These were also the men who tried most to impress the assistant, and who the assistant could tell were attracted to her. Which may explain the enormously bizarre behaviour of young males at any given club on a Friday night. It turns out that the basic human drives of affection, bonding and romance may be rooted – just like in the animal kingdom – in the chemical processes of the brain.

In a purely animalistic sense, testosterone is supposed to get you to bed, and oxytocin is supposed to keep you there.