Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cuddle Season

Little by little the nights are getting colder, the soft flannels are coming out and things made with pumpkin can be found in every coffee shop. All of this indicates to me that it is now (as a friend once dubbed it): Cuddle Season. Since the only cuddling I’m doing at the moment is with my books, and everyone around me seems to be in a relationship I must once again return to the ever-relevant topic of love.

I have looked to friends, artists, musicians, writers, poets, philosophers and even a few terrible movies with the hope of finding a truer and clearer definition for love, yet I’m always left wanting a little more. This time I’m trying out science. A few facts can surely sort out this mess… right?

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful dinner with a "coupled" friend. She is one of the ones in love and we were discussing relationships and dating, among other things. During the conversation she mentioned a book she had just read called "The Female Brain" and since she's also the reason I read "Cunt" (which I highly recommend) I decided to pick it up and mix up my nighttime reading. Seeing as how all of the women authors I had been reading in the past couple of weeks were ones who’d committed suicide early in life, it seemed like a good idea to switch it up and mellow out with a female scientist; Louann Brizendine, M.D.

The book focuses on the female brain and is broken down into phases starting from the womb and finishing with the postmenopausal brain. It also highlights some of the characteristics of the male brain along the way. A lot of what Brizendine covers seemed somewhat obvious to me but there were certain things that stood out particularly from the chapter entitled "Love and Trust". It’s easy to understand the positive feel-good side of love, (especially if you’re in it) but what about all the other shit? Well, according to this book both sides can be traced back to chemicals.

Romantic love seems to have a way of betraying us, and sometimes that means going against our own better judgment. Brizandine states that, "Once a person is in love, the cautious, critical-thinking pathways in the brain shut down. Evolution may have made these in-love brain circuits to ensure we find a mate and then focus in exclusively on that one person […] Falling in love is one of the most irrational behaviors or brain states imaginable for both men and women. The brain becomes "illogical" in the throes of new romance, literally blind to the shortcomings of the lover. It is an evolutionary state." (p. 65) So, love can make us a dumb version of ourselves? Ok, I think we can find plenty of evidence in books and song lyrics alone to support that idea but what makes love so powerful?

What I find most interesting about the neurology of love is how closely it resembles addiction. "Passionately being in love or so-called infatuation-love is now a documented brain state. It shares brain circuits with states of obsession, mania, intoxication, thirst, and hunger. […] The brain circuits that are activated when we are in love match those of a drug addict desperately craving the next fix." (p. 66) She even goes on to describe how it’s almost the exact same thing as taking Ecstasy and says that, "romantic love is a natural Ecstasy high." (p. 66) If our brain is telling us that the love of our life is on the same level of importance as water it’s a pretty intense sense of need, and yet that’s not the reality! Or is it? We know that biology steers us towards procreation but why do our bodies and brains make us betray our hearts at times? If the physical system is designed for perfect matching why do we seem destined to make so many mistakes along the way?

In an example of the initial meeting between a particular man and woman Brizandine describes how everything falls into place in terms of connection and all of a sudden, "wham, hot, knee-buckling waves of attraction and desire are flooding her body with a heady rush of dopamine – sparking euphoria and excitement." (p.59) As I’ve discussed some of these topics among friends and swapped a few of our "knee-buckling" experiences, it seems to be the same among women I know from the age of 18 to 50; the best feeling ones are always the worst in the end! (This may seem like an unfair generalization regarding men but it just so happens to be the common experience from what I know and hear.) Obviously there are a million other factors that go into this but it got me thinking about how I conduct myself in terms of relationships and physical interactions with men. If all of these chemicals are firing off in my body what level of control do I have?

Whether or not it’s a relationship, casual dating or simply "hooking up", it’s interesting to observe how we can end up submitting ourselves to different levels of torture. We may intend to enter a relationship and take all of the risks that come along with it, and this is often rewarding even if there’s pain involved; but I used to think casual sex could be safe from the emotional let-down as long as I could do it without attachment. I’ve been frustrated to discover that it’s not that simple (even though my logical brain wishes it could be) and now I begin to see why.

Even something as simple as a hug can start the chemical surge that my body will find pleasure in and later crave. "From an experiment on hugging we know that oxytocin is naturally released in the brain after a twenty-second hug from a partner – sealing the bond between the huggers and triggering the brain’s trust circuits." (p. 68) Not only does a hug release the same chemicals as an orgasm, but it can create a trust bond that may not be deserved! So we have to be careful when we’re making physical contact, it can end up being as dangerous as tempting your body with a new and highly addictive drug.

Poetry… chemicals… confusion. The mystery of love still remains. As always, for every question I can answer for myself a million new ones arise. So for now I have to let it (and myself) rest. It’s nice to understand what happens in the body and brain and it can sometimes be nice not to. Tonight I will curl up in my feather down comforter, tomorrow I may drink a pumpkin latte and to all you couples; enjoy your oxytocin-dopamine highs while they last.
Happy Cuddle Season!

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