An Affair Of the Head

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

It's all about dopamine, baby, this One Great True Love, this passionate thing we'd burn down the house and blow up the car and drive from Houston to Orlando just to taste on the tip of the tongue.

You crave it because your brain tells you to. Because if a wet kiss on the suprasternal notch -- while, say, your lover has you pinned against a wall in the corner of a dance club -- doesn't fire up the ventral tegmentum in the Motel 6 of your mind, well, he's not going to send you roses tomorrow.

Dopamine.

God's little neurotransmitter. Better known by its street name, romantic love.

Also, norepinephrine. Street name, infatuation.

These chemicals are natural stimulants. You fall in love, a growing amount of research shows, and these chemicals and their cousins start pole-dancing around the neurons of your brain, hopping around the limbic system, setting off craving, obsessive thoughts, focused attention, the desire to commit possibly immoral acts with your beloved while at a stoplight in the 2100 block of K Street during lunch hour, and so on.

"Love is a drug," says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love." "The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions" when one is in love. "It's the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine."

Passion! Sex! Narcotics!

Why do we suspect this isn't going to end well?

Because these things are hard-wired not to last, all of them. Short shelf lives. The passion you fulfill is the passion you kill. The most wonderful, soaring feeling known to all mankind . . . amounts to no more than a narcotic high, a temporal state of mania.

"Being in love, having a crush on someone is wonderful . . . but our bodies can't be in that state all the time," says Pamela C. Regan, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of "Mind Games: A Primer on Love, Sex and Marriage." "Your body would fizzle out. As a species, we'd die."

Some of these love chemicals in the brain, scientists measure by the picogram, which is a trillionth of a gram.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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