Love: the neurochemical cocktail of insanity

Larry Young has written a rather ambitious essay for Nature that skims over the prairie vole/AVPR1A research, breasts as erotic objects, and evidence of dopamine-based mother love on its way to a "view of love as an emergent property of a cocktail of ancient neuropeptides and neurotransmitters." Young then asks whether "recent advances in the biology of pair bonding mean it won't be long before an unscrupulous suitor could slip a pharmaceutical 'love potion' in our drink."

Unlikely? Maybe - but his point that antidepressants like Prozac influence the same neurotransmitters implicated in love is a good one. There's no clean distinction between pharmaceutical neurochemistry and a patient's relationships. Whatever you're taking, whomever you're dating - it's all blurring together in your brain.

In today's NYT, John Tierney takes it a step farther:

the really good news, as I see it, is that we might reverse-engineer an anti-love potion, a vaccine preventing you from making an infatuated ass of yourself. Although this love vaccine isn't mentioned in Dr. Young's essay, when I raised the prospect he agreed it could also be in the offing.

A love vaccine? Is love really that bad? Apparently so - on his blog, Tierney goes on to quote Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers, about the manifest dangers of casual sex!

I've been hearing about such dangers since high school sex ed class, but this is a new one on me:

It's possible to fall in love with someone just because you had sex with them, because with orgasm you get a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin that can cause you to feel attached to the person. Casual sex is not always casual. Someone might be happy, with a lovely wife or husband, and then this brain system for romantic love or attachment is triggered by someone totally inappropriate. You acquire all the characteristics of an addict. You come obsessed; you distort reality; you do dangerous things; you crave the person, you have withdrawal symptoms.

Wow, love sounds so. . . frightening. You don't want that to happen to you, do you, kids?

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You know for a second there, I thought maybe for once that Tierney guy wouldn't be an idiot. I mean it's a cool idea to make an anti-love potion. Can't see much of a use for it but it's original at least.

And then he brings on the stupid.

Great analysis. Can casual sex really be equated so easily with the much stronger, longer lasting love that builds slowly but surely in a steady relationship? It seems insulting to not only bring the two to the same level, but thereby inferring that both kinds of love can be a heinous addiction; just because love can have less than desirable outcomes doesn't mean you should shield yourself from any chance of it. At the risk of sounding cliche, the risk of losing out on any kind of love at all seems more dangerous than the inherent risks of love.
I'd rather see more focus on empowering smart decision making than in promoting a drug that does the love-thinking for you.

So you can have sex with someone and end up falling in love with them? Ooh, I'll have to make sure I don't fall into that deadly pitfall!

There's still some hopeless romantic inside of me that feels wronged when discussing love in terms of neurochemistry but it doesn't make it any less true. It's more fascinating if anything so keep on covering the subject!

"Out on the lonely prairie, gazing at the stars above
I saw through the night
the wondrous sight
Of prairie voles in love"

I cannot ever live up to the poetry of Digital Cuttlefish, obviously.

And every time I read Tierneylab now I end up rolling my eyes back into my head. No casual sex, kids, it could *gasp* lead to the start of a meaningful relationship!

Disappointing that nitric oxide was not mentioned. NO is critically important in romantic love. Vasopressin and oxytocin have effects mediated through NO.

The archetypal emotion of love and bonding is maternal bonding; something that all mammals exhibit. Maternal bonding requires NO. Maternal bonding in mammals has to be coupled to energy physiology because lactation is so energy intensive. If the mother doesnât have sufficient metabolic resources to sustain lactation, the optimum behavior is to not bond and to abandon/kill/eat her infant. Many mammals exhibit these behaviors if they are put under enough stress (which lowers NO levels). I am pretty sure that low NO is the trigger for this type of behavior (because low NO signals metabolic and other stress). I have blogged about the physiology of it in the context of postpartum psychosis and infanticide.…

(warning, some of the ideas are disturbing)

I think the greatest risk for inappropriate bonding for women is when they are under extreme stress which causes low NO levels. I think this is what triggers Stockholm Syndrome, capture bonding and women attaching to men who beat them. Chronic low NO makes people more susceptible to getting suckered by people who raise their NO levels. I think this is part of why some men use treating women crappy as a tactic. Lower her NO level first, and then anything you do to raise it will seem that much better, 11 even.

BTW, if anyone has *not* followed Scicurious's link to her complete poem, stop reading this immediately and do so! It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever...

Have these researchers been so busy in the lab as to deprive themselves of a life without wine?
The anti-love potion, quite naturally, follows organically.

By JMFulton, Jr. (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

Ooh, I'm a big Helen Fisher fan.

I'd recommend her book "Anatomy of Love" to interested parties. She makes a good point about a sort of bi-phasic love: the initial phase is compared to amphetamine use, while pair bonding and long-term love involved something more similar to opiates ("in love" vs "love", one might say).