Looking for love – is science the answer?
The song tells us we can’t hurry love – but thanks to science, we can actually measure it in our blood. What the boffins can’t work out, though, is why we fall in love and what it is that drives our quest to find “the one.”
Clearly it’s a whole lot more than simple biochemistry.
“See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!”
Romeo Montague puts in words what we all feel when we’re in love. Who wouldn’t want to touch the cheek of the person they’ve vested their love in, whether in a 16th century play or on a Tinder date? There’s danger out there, though, as we often become besotted and ready to put our life and health on the line for this other person.
Behind all the brave words and science, love is a combination of both biochemistry and evolutionary drive, according to researchers.When it comes to biochemistry, a hormone called oxytocin that is produced in the hypothalamus in our brain governs our relationships with other people.
“Oxytocin is a signaler that is involved in many of our bodily functions. It acts as a social glue that binds us together with other people,” says Siri Graff Leknes, a brain researcher at the Psychological Institute at the University of Oslo.
Leknes has written a number of scientific articles on oxytocin and together with chemists at the University of Oslo, has developed a new method of measuring how much of it we have in our blood. They extract the protein to which oxytocin is bound and then isolate it. From there, they can carefully measure the oxytocin content in the blood.
Leknes describes studies carried out using prairie mice, which are interesting because they also have oxytocin in their bodies and are dependent on it to maintain their “family structures.” Prairie mice are monogamous, that is, they “marry” a partner, build a family and then raise their young together. The mice also produce a substance called kopioid that makes them seem repellent to other mice.
This is how they create a bond.
“However, if we block oxytocin in prairie mice they stop being monogamous,” Leknes says.
“Humans have similar functions – but we also have awareness and free will. We experience love, but if we remove oxytocin from humans, it wouldn’t immediately change our marital status.”
Oxytocin is important for us humans long before birth because the level increases in a pregnant mother and the same thing happens to the father. To help induce women in labor, doctors give them oxytocin to trigger contractions. In other words, it has both a psychological and physical effect.
“It makes your heart walk outside your body and binds you to the child,” Leknes says.
“Love is a powerful feeling that can make us giddy and crazy. It leads us to choose wrong turnings and take big risks,” says Helen Fisher, an American anthropologist who has studied brain activity in people in love.
“We have seen the activity in the so-called ventral tegmental part of the brain that acts as a reward center. It synthesizes dopamine. This is a part of our reptile brain that controls desire and that reacts to cocaine. But love is more than a cocaine rush. We become besotted and the person “captures our brain.” This feeling also grows stronger when we can’t have what we want. It makes us willing to take enormous risks and this is why we also see criminality in the wake of love,” she says during a Ted Talks lecture.
In evolutionary terms, too, love is tremendously important.
“It’s about driving the species forward, making babies, staying together and caring for children,” says Professor Glenn Peter Sætre at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo.
But what is it that makes us choose person A and not person B in a room full of people? Psychologists tend to say that we look for a good match, that is to say someone with a similar socioeconomic background, with similar values or a similar appearance as ourselves. But we also make choices that ensure we have sound and healthy children.
“We make smart choices. Children who inherit different variants of immune genes from their parents are better protected against bacteria and viruses than children who inherit the same variants. Experiments show that we can also sniff out a potential partner who does or doesn’t have matching immune genes. An attractive body odor for example, helps our choices. And when we’ve finally found our match, we’re very happy. We’re bathed in endorphins that make us immune to hunger and pain.
“It’s obvious. When we’re in love, we manage to sleep together in a single bed, but as time passes, we maybe start using earplugs to stop hearing our partner snoring,” Leknes says.
The same mechanisms are triggered when we fall flat on our faces and get rejected. Even though it’s not like breaking a toe, it still really hurts. Perhaps even more so.
“It is risky being on your own. Throughout history we have been sensitive to being ostracized. Being dumped should feel bad.”
However, the biological imperative doesn’t always help us in the hunt for a new partner. In Oslo, over 48% of the population lives alone according to the Municipality of Oslo website, while Statistics Sweden reports that 38% of Swedish households consist of a single person.
About 80% of Tinder users are looking for a relationship according to its founder Sean Rad in an interviewwith Tech Times. The app has naturally made him wealthy. Market research company IBISWorld estimates that the US dating market alone posted a turnover of $2 billion in 2016. And it’s still a growth market, increasing by almost 5% a year, comfortably outpacing the US economy in general.
Marie, who’s French, has been swiping her way through Tinder for the past few years.
“As you get older, you get more picky and my standards are getting higher. It’s simply not true that you have to have a partner to survive,” she says. “But Tinder is good, because it gives you more options. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, even though I still don’t know how things will develop with the latest man I’ve met on it.”
Will our financial independence mean that we choose not to live with a partner in the future?
“People see having a partner as a good way to live,” biology professor Sæter says. “I don’t think we are going to change much in this respect.”
Whether it’s a question of science or not, that Romeo and Juliet balcony scene looks set to resonate for a good while yet.
Text: Inga Ragnhild Holst
Published: February 13, 2017