Friday, January 28, 2011

Fairy Tale Romance - Neurobiology

Part 3 of 5
This is your brain on love. From PLoS.
This was supposed to be a four-part post, but I couldn’t resist including material from Monday’s lecture.

As it turns out, there is incredible similarity between opioids (like heroin) and being in love. They act on the same regions of the brain and cause similar physiologic effects. They both reduce the perception of pain in those who took them. The more in love a person is, the greater the effect. They have similar immediate effects: feelings of euphoria, well-being. They have similar withdrawal effects: compulsive thinking, anxiety.

We talked about the four C’s of addiction. Compulsion, Continuation despite harm, lack of Control in using the drug, Cravings. Isn’t this exactly romance? Doesn’t this describe a lover’s desire for his beloved? He must see her. And when he doesn’t see her, he has cravings for her. And it not only matches the addiction profile, but also the features of dependence. What happens if there is sudden removal of the beloved (that is, a breakup)? Lovesickness. GI upset, overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Severe physiological and psychological symptoms. As it turns out, it may be that symptoms are chemically identical to heroin withdrawal.

But, like usual, neurobiology tells us what we already know (it’s Poetry’s job to tell us what we don’t). We know that we feel good when we’re in love. We know it hurts to break up. What we didn’t know (at least what I didn’t know) was that this effect could be mimicked pharmacologically.

Does this mean romantic love isn’t real? Far from it! It means that romantic love is very real, and incredibly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the most addictive substance known to man! Far from ruining the fairy tales, we now (perhaps) know one more detail about them. But an added detail doesn’t ruin the picture. Understanding the physiology of muscle contraction of the knight’s triceps as he swings his sword does nothing to diminish his slaying of the dragon; it is an interesting, if irrelevant, detail. Knowing the names of the chemicals which are giving him an overwhelming urge guarantee permanency with his beloved is yet another interesting, if irrelevant, detail. This medical hypothesis is only another bit of color in the wonderful (and terrible) picture of Romance.  

We also haven’t addressed how these feelings begin. The ancients have as realistic an explanation as we do presently: his heart is pierced with a powerful magic arrow by Cupid/Eros. Perhaps cupid uses dopamanurgic arrows. And we should take heed, lest we rely too much on this powerful magic. A relationship cannot be sustained only on this heroin-like phase. The high will diminish as tolerance builds. But this is exactly what we already knew; there is a honeymoon phase on new love. It lasts for a while, but not forever.

In the previous post, I recounted poetic descriptions from Genesis, Disney and Sex and the City, all describing some deep yearning for romance. This bit of scientific evidence simply confirms their observations. These feelings are real and deep, deeper than we can ignore. Courting customs vary from age to age; neurobiology does not. Scientists have now joined the ranks of poets in describing this same strange phenomenon. Genesis suggests that Romance was not a medieval invention. Neurobiology suggests that Romance was not a ancient invention, either. This feature has been with our race from the beginning; Fairy Tale Romance, it seems, was an invention of God.

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