Saturday, May 26, 2007

Love Potion No. 9

For the past several years, I have been counseling women who are involved in abusive relationships or who want to escape from their marriage. Probably the most bizarre story I have ever heard is from a counselee (a schoolteacher) who married a man she met and talked to just once prior to their quickie marriage. She said that the man’s mother had been telling her for some time about the good qualities of the guy, and that time before she met him, the mother asked her to eat some kind of food that made her feel somewhat dizzy. For reasons she couldn’t understand then, she said she agreed to marry the guy. This woman, who’s now seeking to annul her marriage, told me that she probably was fed with some kind of gayuma (or love potion, in the English language) by the mother.

Well, well, well, love potions… If you grew up in the 1960’s like I did, you’re probably familiar with the hit song “Love Potion No. 9” by the doo-wop group known as The Clovers. For the younger ones among you, you might remember that “Love Potion No. 9” was title of a movie starring Sandra Bullock and Tate Donovan. Love potions are part of Filipino folklore; if you want someone to fall in love with you, you just have to go to the “arbolaryo” (the village herb doctor, in English) who will concoct a potent brew for you. You then slip the “gayuma” in your desired one’s food or drink, and instantly, that man or woman will fall instantly in love with you. If you’re in the Metro Manila area, you simply have to go around the vicinity of the Quiapo church, and look around the various stalls offering love potions, amulets, herbs of various kinds and for various purposes …

Do love potions really work? Do they really exist in this day and age of the Internet, websites, 3G cellphones and e-mail? Well, believe it or not, but serious scientists have done some quite extensive studies in neurochemistry and have come up with the conclusion that “love” really is a matter of chemicals. Not the “gayuma” kind of chemicals but chemicals that already are part of the complex human body. Hmmm, very interesting …

The cuddle chemicals

Dannah Gresh in one of her books (either “Pursuing the Pearl” or “And the Bride Wore White”) says that “adrenaline” is the fuel of romantic love. Well, sorry, Dannah, but your research is wrong! Scientists working in the field of neurochemistry say that the chemicals responsible for love are, among others, dopamine, vasopressin and oxytocin, or the so-called “cuddle chemicals.” (The 1955 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Vincent du Vigneaud who discovered, isolated and synthesized oxytocin and vasopressin.)

Secular writer Eve Salinger says that, at the beginning stages, when a man and woman start getting attracted to each other, the human brain produces increasing levels of “dopamine” and “norepinephrine” which create feelings of exhilaration and lovesickness. Salinger says that as the romantic relationship loses its initial exhilarating buzz, “dopamine” and “norepinephrine” are replaced by “vasopressin” and “oxytocin” which promote bonding or a warm, fuzzy feeling between the man and the woman.

“Endorphin” (another cuddle chemical) is thought to be the main chemical responsible for long-term relationships, and its levels increase when a person responds to loving touch, pleasing visual stimuli, positive thoughts and physical exercise.

Love is in the brain, not the heart?

The National Geographic magazine (February 2004 issue), in its banner story “Love: The Chemical Reaction”, likewise speaks of the brain chemical “dopamine” as producing intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention and motivation. Written by Lauren Slater, the article says, “Love and obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a similar chemical profile. Translation: Love and mental illness may be difficult to tell apart.” Yikes!

Wikipedia, in its articles about the “cuddle chemicals” (dopamine, vasopressin, oxytocin, endorphin, etc), gives us some very interesting information:

Dopamine (C8H11NO2) is a chemical naturally produced in the body. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, activating dopamine receptors. Dopamine is also a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus. Its main function as a hormone is to inhibit the release of prolactin from the anterior lobe of the pituitary.

Dopamine can be supplied as a medication that acts on the sympathetic nervous system, producing effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. However, since dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, dopamine given as a drug does not directly affect the central nervous system. To increase the amount of dopamine in the brains of patients with diseases such as Parkinson's disease and Dopa-Responsive Dystonia, a synthetic precursor to dopamine such as L-DOPA can be given, since this will cross the blood-brain barrier.

Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Dopamine is released (particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and striatum) by naturally rewarding experiences such as food, sex, use of certain drugs and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.

Vasopressin is a peptide hormone liberated from a preprohormone precursor that is synthesized in the hypothalamus as it is transported to the posterior pituitary. Most of it is stored in the posterior part of the pituitary gland to be released into the blood stream; some of it is also released directly into the brain. It is responsible for creating intense loving memories, for clarity of thought and alertness during passionate situations.

In recent years there has been particular interest in the role of vasopressin in social behavior. It is thought that vasopressin, released into the brain during sexual activity, initiates and sustains patterns of activity that support the pair-bond between the sexual partners.

Oxytocin (C43H66N12O12S2 and Greek for “quick birth”) is a mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. In women, it is released mainly after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples, facilitating birth and breastfeeding, respectively. Oxytocin is released during orgasm in both sexes. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and might be involved in the formation of trust between people.

The different actions of oxytocin within the brain are sexual arousal, bonding, maternal behavior, various ant-stress functions, and increasing trust and reducing fear.
A very interesting study, referred to extensively by Slater’s National Geographic article, is that of the 2004 book “Why We Love - the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love” by Helen Fisher. In her studies which made extensive use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), Fisher discovered that when a person looks at a picture of person he or she loves, the parts of the brain associated with rewards and pleasure and known as the “ventral segmental area” and the “caudate nucleus” almost literally light up with activity.

These chemicals are reactive, meaning they don’t just kick into our systems for no reason at all and hold us hostage to their effects. There’s always first a stimulus - food, a breathtaking scenery, an attractive guy (okay, okay, you can use me as an example!) – that sets these chemicals into action. In one study for example, when women in good marriages were asked to think about their husbands, the oxytocin levels in their blood increased. The stimulus was the pleasing thoughts about their husbands, and the effect was increased oxytocin levels.

The cuddle chemicals and your relationships

What are the practical applications for you in knowing all these things about the cuddle chemicals? Well, when you meet someone attractive and interesting (okay, okay, you can use me for an example!), the sparks will start flying but that’s only because of dopamine kicking into your system. Don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re truly falling in love. Give yourself time (lots of it!), and in a more stable emotional climate, you can better evaluate what your feelings are for that person. As Dr. James Dobson said in his book “Love Must Be Tough” (specifically the chapter on “Loving Toughness for Singles”), “Don’t let the relationship move too fast in its infancy. The phrase ‘too hot not to cool down’ has validity. Take it one step at a time.”

The end of the romance

The exhilarating, romance-filled days will not last. That’s because, as researchers in neurochemistry say, the dopamine-fueled hyperactivity can damage the brain. Remember what Slater in her National Geographic article said about love and mental illness being difficult to tell apart? Yikes!

Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot in their book “Relationships” point out that the lifetime of most romantic relationships is only about two years, with a break-up occurring on the third year. Why? Well, they say that a man and a woman in the first year of their relationship are blind to the faults and defects of each other. Reality only sets in during the second year of the relationship, and the couple begins to notice the negatives in their partner’s attitudes, character and personality.

Well, well, well, from the arbolaryo’s love potions to the scientists’ cuddle chemicals … What really is love?

World-renowned marriage and family counselor Dr. Ed Wheat in his classic book “Love Life For Every Married Couple” states the following four foundational principles about what love really is all about:

[1] I can learn what love is from the Word of God. It is rational, not irrational. I can understand love and grow in the understanding of it throughout my lifetime.

[2] Love is not easy or simple: it is an art that I must want to learn and pour my life into. I can learn how to love.

[3] Love is an active power that I control by my own will. I am not the helpless slave of love. I can choose to love.

[4] Love is the power that will produce love as I learn to give it rather than strain to attract it.
In the said book, Dr. Wheat also defines and discusses the different Greek words for “love” used in the Bible. These are:

[1] Epithumia – though not really a word for love, it denotes strong physical desire between a husband and wife;

[2] Eros - romantic, passionate, and sentimental love; infatuation among younger people; changeable and fickle;

[3] Storge - natural affection and a sense of belonging to each other, the kind of love shared by parents and children or brothers and sisters who see each other as a an emotional refuge in the storms of life;

[4] Phileo – a love between friends, comrades, brothers in arms, characterized by sharing, closeness and companionship; and

[5] Agape - the totally unselfish love that has the capacity to give and keep on giving without expecting in return.
For those people struggling in a difficult marriage, the agape kind of love is what can keep the marriage together even when the other spouse is resisting or unwilling to change, or even wanting to leave the marriage altogether through divorce or separation. If you want to know more about Dr. Wheat’s ideas and suggestions for a fulfilling love relationship, please read my previous articles “How to save your marriage alone: Priceless counsel from a bargain sale book” and “Acronyms for a great relationship: Kailangang i-memorize yan!” His book is also available in National Bookstore and in Christian bookstores (OMF Lit, PCBS, back to the Bible, Vine and the Branches).

To know more of what real love is, we’ve got to turn to the Bible’s Love Chapter – I Corinthians chapter 13. Below is a copy of that famous love chapter with the 1611 King James Version word “charity” replaced with “love”. Here we go!

1. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
3. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
4. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 8. Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13. And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Well, well, well, no mention here whatsoever of the cuddle chemicals, of dopamine, vasopressin and oxytocin, right? Next week will be June already and you will be meeting new classmates and friends, and perhaps, new prospects for a romantic relationship. But if you want to know about real love, the agape kind that transcends dreary circumstances, human relationships that are innately transient (for who lives forever?), then click here.