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An Affair Of the Head
They Say Love Is All About Brain Chemistry. Will You Be Dopamine?

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.

How fragile, this thing called love.

* * *

Just about all writing about love stinks, maybe because so much of it begins with something like "O!" or maybe because people are (a) in love when they write it, which makes for a lot of senseless mooning the rest of us couldn't care less about; or (b) they have just been Kicked to the Curb of Romance, in which case they would rather be pinned to an insect board and labeled than live another minute on this godawful Planet of Hate.

Sigh.

Stendhal was onto something in the 19th century when he observed that "The pleasures of love are always in proportion to our fears," because passionate love is also partly about terror. Bill Shakespeare had it down cold, when he had Friar Laurence warn young Romeo of the perils of passion: "These violent delights have violent ends."

And did Romeo listen?

Shucks, no! Wise counsel, patience, foresight, prune juice -- who wants that ? Is there one among us who, at least once in this life, does not want to throw everything out the door and sprint to the Disco Ball of the Brain, where there are big white piles of dopamine, where a hot and sweaty Barry White is always on stage, thumping out "You're My First! My Last! My Everything!" And there's that new girl in class! Scantily clad! She's on the floor, beckoning you! Yes, Bubba, you! Out you go, and she's saying your name and her hand slips to the small of your back, and this is going to last FOREVER AND EVER!

Here it goes, a long time ago, Abelard and Heloise, two of history's most famous lovers:

Abelard to Heloise: "So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself."

She to he: "Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purest, lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take . . . a hold on my unhappy soul."

HONEY! BABY! SWEETIE! CALL ME!

Did we mention Abelard was castrated as a result of their affair? And Heloise went off to a convent for the rest of her life? That they named their child "Astrolabe"? What people! What passion! What the hell were they thinking?

Actually they weren't, and neither are you, not really, when you fall passionately in love.

In her most recent research, Fisher and colleagues gave 32 love-struck subjects an MRI scan while they viewed a picture of their beloved.

Boy, did their brains light up!

There are two shrimp-size things on either side of your brain called the caudate nuclei. This is the gear that operates bodily movements and the body's reward system: "the mind's network for general arousal, sensations of pleasure, and the motivation to acquire rewards," Fisher writes. And when the test subjects looked at their sweeties, these things started singing "Loosen Up My Buttons" with the Pussycat Dolls!

This, then, kicked the party over to the tiny ventral tegmental area, a little peapod-size thingy that sends dopamine bopping around your head.

This is what scientists call lots of fun.

A separate study by Italian researchers several years ago showed something else.

Serotonin, another neurotransmitter in the brain associated with obsession, depression and racing thoughts, was greatly affected -- right down to the molecular level -- by romance and surging dopamine. People newly in love and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder showed the same lowered levels of the "platelet 5-HT transporter." In other words, dopamine appears to suppress serotonin, which in turn triggers obsessive-compulsive thought patterns.

You can't stop thinking about Dave. No wonder! Dave's hiding under a wet flap of cortex!

Your brain is officially in love, and it officially is driving you crazy.

Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist and author, once cited the case of a 90-year-old woman who had suddenly become radiant, flirty, even frisky. The diagnosis: a long-delayed onset of neurosyphilis had loosed the reins on her inhibitions.

She did not want to be treated.

"What a paradox, what a cruelty, what an irony," Sacks wrote. "That inner life and imagination may lie dull and dormant unless released, awakened, by an intoxication or a disease . . . it is the very realm of Cupid and Dionysus."

* * *

Cupid can't last, you know.

Oxytocin and other chemicals kick in, running around your brain to make you bond with your lover, producing a mellower, more sustainable relationship.

Women: contented sigh. Men: light snoring.

Or, your Previously Perfect Love Pumpkin turns into possibly the most selfish, cheating, low-down dirty dog this side of Amarillo. You get dumped. This is what produces "drama."

"Drama" is not good for your "brain."

What it feels like:

A one-way ticket to the Tex-Mex Border Bar of the Mind. It's always dark in here, stinks of old cigars. The clock on the wall always reads Beer:30. Your caudate nucleus is now slouched over a bar stool in the dark. Sitting next to it is Freddy Fender.

Suddenly your brain bellows, off-key:

WASTED DAYS AND WASTED NIGHTS!

Freddy looks up from his beer.

I HAVE LEFT FOR YOU BEHIND!

Freddy throws his arm around your brain and joins in:

FOR YOU DON'T BELONG TO ME!

YOUR HEART BELONGS TO SOMEONE ELSE!

Your brain can spend entire days doing this.

This is because your brain has kicked into reverse, and love is long gone.

O!

Rejection, rage, despair!

Dopamine leaves the scene of the affair, now running off into the nucleus accumbens, the insular cortex, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, research by Fisher and others shows. Jilted lovers' brains now light up in these areas when they look at pictures of their former flames -- this brain matter is associated with taking big risks, addiction, physical pain and obsessive-compulsive disorders. This is why, researchers theorize, people become obsessed with lost love, and are driven, in extreme cases, to stalking, suicide, homicide, rubber tubing.

Regan, the California researcher, notes that such cases are rare, and may have more to do with existing mental issues than simple unrequited love. Still, she says, passion is destined to end, whether mellowing into long-term love or blowing up on the freeway at 4 a.m. Given this, she wonders if "we do our self a disservice by glorifying passionate love so much."

"The search for eternal passion is very misguided," she says. "It's the search for the perfect high that keeps people discarding relationships right and left . You don't feel the same way you did; people want to break up, instead of seeing it as normal."

And so, alas. Even neurologists, to go with Shakespeare's priest, now tell us passion is true love's fool's gold, a flamboyant dead end on the evolutionary chain of primate happiness.

The only problem with this insight is that no one pays it any mind. Doomed passion may not make us right, and it may not even make us very happy.

It only makes us human. It only makes us who we are.

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