Vol. 208 February 15, 2019 Sex, Love, and Attachment . . .

February 15, 2019

. . .  an appropriate headline for the day after Valentine’s Day, don’t you think?

All three “drives” or urges, sex, love, and attachment, arise from the same part of the brain according to Helen Fisher, neuroscientist and anthropologist, author of The Anatomy of Love. She states that these three brain neuropathways interconnect and interact to produce together the feeling of romantic love. This occurs in the most primal part of our brain which also generates feelings of hunger and thirst. The three pathways can operate independently, obviously one can have sex without love or attachment, but all three have to be working together to produce “romantic love”; think about the lyrics, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” (presumably during a night of sex).

That same part of the brain is the source of dopamine, the neurochemical stimulant associated with our “craving and reward” mechanisms.  Dopamine causes release of endorphins, neurochemical messengers,  and oxytocin, a hormone, both of which are opiate-like. Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love drug”, is released when a mother nurses her infant which promotes their strong attachment, and so is also called the”bonding drug”.  Interestingly, just petting and cuddling your dog has been shown to cause oxytocin release.  The most potent release of oxytocin is associated with orgasm. Dopamine and other “feel good” neurochemicals are known to make the decision-making parts of the brain less active; think of “Love is blind” or “Madly in love” or somebody texting a picture of their genitalia.

In the 1970’s two graduate student psychologists, married to each other, started experimenting with a program to try to promote “personal closeness” in a non-romantic relationship between two strangers. They found that a series of 48 escalating, self-revealing questions that random pairings of people asked of each other, followed by staring silently into each others’ eyes for four minutes, produced “friendships” of strangers that lasted for months in 35% of the pairings. This procedure became known as the Arons Protocol, named after its two developers. (1)

In 2015 the writer of a love column, Mandy Len Carton, decided to try the Arons Protocol, now pared down to 36 questions in three sets, on one of her dates. She promptly fell in love, and described the experience in her Modern Love column, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”, her most widely read column according to the NY Times.

There are 2500 social network “dating websites” in the U.S. alone. Most ask questions of subscribers in hopes of identifying common compatibilities that will make “a good match”. One of the first sites, eHarmony launched in 2000, boasts that its 150 questions (pared down from the original 450) were scientifically developed by a clinical psychologist to ensure a better “match” of personalities and values; a better match would lead to more “attachment” and long-lasting romantic love. Tinder, not so much.

Most agree that romantic love is not simply something we can talk ourselves into, or game ourselves into, and that it can also occur very quickly as in  “love at first sight”.  Much research shows that many factors, perhaps even including unknown, unidentified pheromones are involved in generating that feeling of love. Deep down most of us don’t want to believe that the mystery of human love can be explained by genetic maps and certain chemical levels in the brain or blood. Alfred Einstein, when asked if he ever thought of trying to have “the perfect child”  with Marilyn Monroe said, “I would be afraid that the child might have my looks and her brains.” Einstein might have had the last word on the relationship between science and love when he said, “Gravity is not responsible for people falling in love.”

Using some of the suggested “attraction” elements for the development of love: Imagine a six-foot, wide-shouldered, licorice-sucking man wearing a lavender sweater over a 2-day old T-shirt driving a Lotus through busy city traffic picking up a hitchhiking, ovulating blonde with a very symmetrical face, eating a doughnut above her C cup bra, and carrying a bouquet of spicy flowers  . . . sounds like a movie . . . wait . . . it IS a movie . . . they already made it . . . but, Julia Roberts is taller than Richard Gere!

Or better yet, imagine using the Aron Protocol to reduce our current society’s polarization. Why not set up Aron Protocol meetings of couples for police and black community members, white and black college students, capitalists and socialists, or even Trump supporters and Trump opponents! Arthur Aron has said, “We never designed [the Aron Protocol] for use in the real world . . . but people are looking for ways to be close to others.” (2)

References: 
1. Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findingsPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.

2. “The Science of Love,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Boston Globe, Feb. 10, 2019, K1

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