Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Monogamania 2: In a Chemical World...Or, Where Did the Lust Go?

So, time to finally post the follow up to the, as Anastasia put it, "rip-roaring discussion" on monogamy and polyamory that started this Friday.

Since I last wrote that post, I've been reading a lot of articles about chemical and neurological reactions related to love, lust, and sex in humans. I thought perhaps science could explain the wide variance on views on single- or multiple-partner sexuality. Did it? Yes and no. As usual, every answer brings up more questions and more things to ponder. While the facts remained relatively similar across different articles, every journalist's interpretation of the facts seemed to differ a bit, skewing the results to support either monogomous or non-monogamous theories. There are billions of articles on the topic, but I'll post and sum up a few key ones that I thought were most useful here.

First, a shorter one, "The Chemistry of Love" from the site How Stuff Works. (Note you have to click through to read the whole article). According to this article:

  • During the initial romantic infatuation stage (let's call it the "lust" stage), the brain is primarily secreting dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine--chemicals that induce feelings of bliss, excitement, racing heart, sleeplessness, craving--all those things you feel when you're madly attracted to someone. At this time the parts of your brain with dopamine receptors are stimulated at an increased rate. (In most of the articles I read, these chemical responses are likened to cocaine.)

  • During the phase where romantic love kicks in and sex is occurring, different chemicals begin to kick in. These are bonding-influencing chemicals like oxytocin and vasopressin, and are released during orgasm and focus your instinct on being with one particular person (in the prairie vole example explained later, they say these chemicals create a "scent imprint" that makes them recognize and stay with their partners--it's implied we probably do something similar).

  • Interestingly, when oxytocin and vasopressin begin to be released, they actually INTERFERE with your dopamine and norepinephrine pathways--therefore building a stronger bond response (comfortable love) than a continual romantic love "rush" response.

  • At this stage, endorphins show up (both during sex and during physical contact), making you feel all nice and warm and safe. People can become dependent on this.

  • After about 2 to 3 years all of your "lust" chemicals fade out and all the "romantic bonding" chemicals continue to be released, assuming the couple is still having sex. But this is the stage where people "wake up" and realize their partner may not be as constantly enthralling as the "lust" chemicals made them think. The person him/herself hasn't changed, the chemicals that affect your drive toward them have changed.

  • There's a monogamous mammal called the prairie vole. It's believed these mammals mate for life because they have oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Other types of voles don't have these receptors, and are polyamorous.

Here's another article: "I Get a Kick Out of You," in The Economist online. Highlights:

  • More info on the prairie vole studies, with further explanation of a distinctive feature of both vasopressin and oxytocin--"they are involved in parts of the brain that help to pick out the salient features used to identify individuals." In other words, if you don't have any of these chemicals, you can't differentiate between people. And again, how do prairie voles use these chemicals to identify other voles, and particularly their mates? Smell.

  • It's also environmental: "...animals—people included—learn from their sexual and social experiences...Researchers think humans develop a “love map” as they grow up—a blueprint that contains the many things that they have learnt are attractive. This inner scorecard is something that people use to rate the suitability of mates. Yet the idea that humans are actually born with a particular type of “soul mate” wired into their desires is wrong. Research on the choices of partner made by identical twins suggests that the development of love maps takes time, and has a strong random component."
A final article, and the one which I found most interesting, "Cupid's Comeuppance" in Psychology Today. Quick summary:
  • They define love as having three distinct stages, lust, romantic love, and attachment: "Lust gets us on the hunt for potential mates, and romantic love narrows our focus and energy to just one person, while attachment encourages us to stick with this partner long enough to raise children."
  • Dopamine and norepinephrine, the "lust" chemicals do begin to fade over the course of a romantic love and attachment phases, as the "cuddle chemicals" vasopressin and oxytocin take hold.

  • But wait! Dopamine and norepinephrine levels can be resurrected! According to the article, the level of these chemicals surges every time we're confronted with the unknown. So that means...inject new adventures into the relationship, and lust can rises again.

  • They imply things as simple to attain as humor and sex can raise your dopamine levels. Even more dopamine inducing: separation (you want it but you can't have it), and fights. And overall, the key is to seek out "novel and stimulating experiences" to share together.

  • A glitch: a couple's sense of "novel and stimulating" has to match, or this doesn't work. "People normally differ in the degree to which they seek stimulation. But the most enduring couples, it turns out, are those whose natural levels of sensation seeking, whether high, low or in between, are very closely aligned."

  • The best combination for lasting bliss is apparently two low sensation seekers. Two high sensation seekers are okay but may be too interested in variety to ensure a lasting union. "Still, the worst combination is high-low, because they just don't understand each other's interests." (See the article for a definition of what high and low sensation seekers are like.)

  • Another glitch: A lower sensation seeker might seem higher than he/she is when he/she is experiencing the adrenaline rush of the lust stage. "It's when the sex becomes routine that problems occur. Initially there can be a great attraction between a high [-level] and a low [-level]. And only later may they realize how fundamentally different they are."

  • New topic: SMELL. You've got one. No one else has got yours. Everyone's got their own smell, based on their immune system makeup. So no matter how good someone might look on paper, if they don't smell good to you, you're not gonna be able to bond romantically to them, and vice versa.

  • REALLY interesting: According to this, the birth control pill can make women choose the wrong scented person. Because the pill simulates pregancy, the woman's olfactory system looks for a protective scent, and often goes for a man who has a "father" or "brother" scent. "A few years into marriage, a woman may stop using birth control only to find herself less interested in her mate without knowing why."
SO. What about all this? Have you ever ended a relationship because secretly, you just couldn't stand a person's smell? Women: did you ever go off birth control pills and find you suddenly wanted an entirely different kind of partner (I think I've experienced this)? Are our instincts to mate and bond purely chemical and biological, or is there more to it than all this?
Does all this mean monogamously-oriented people are perhaps just less sensitive to dopamine and the "lust" chemicals and more sensitive to the "romantic love chemicals?" If sex and humor add novelty to a relationship in ways that can boost dopamine, why do long-term couples stop having sex? If we made sure we had sex regularly--EXCITING sex--would we lust after each other forever? (Man, do I want this one to be true.)

And can a reasonably high-sensation girl ever get a friggin' boyfriend that doesn't eventually bore her to death (not that I need to know this one *personally* or anything...look up...whistle...don't be obvious...)?

Please let me know what you think.

Whew. I'm spent. Someone gimme a dopamine injection.


Blogger Dark Daughta said...

I'll have to take some time to add some new research to the posts I've been writing on monogamy, sex negativity and sexual conservatism on my blogsite. In the meantime, thanks for this useful information.

3/01/2006 6:53 AM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

“But long-term success in mating requires a change from being naive about this state to knowing the precise factors that lead from arousal to the rewards of sex, love and attachment. For some humans, this may involve flowers, chocolate and sweet words. But these things are learnt.”

More later, it’s nearly time for me to hit the hay but the above (in the Economist article) caught my eye. Flowers, chocolate and ‘sweet words’ (because a person, by adulthood builds their own personal sexual dictionary in their mind) also elicit a response that is also based on one’s chemical reaction. The scent of a flower may be associated with other pleasurable experiences or images, chocolate is related to serotonin release and sweet words unlock or act like a key to one’s personal repository or erotic lexicon, and these unlock further things, like neurotransmitters and it goes on.

Everything all around us, as odd as it may sound, is ‘chemistry’ in the sense that humans depend on chemical cues to make sense of their environment and so on. Thoughts (information from),sensations and interpretations all induce chemical reactions in the biological sense and although this scientific angle may appear 'cold' to lay people, it really isn't cold - the way the body and mind integrates everything is magical, the body contains a cosmos that is as vast as the outer cosmos of space.

3/01/2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger chelsea girl said...

There is also the biological imperative of raising a child that releases hormones to make romantic unions last about seven years--about the time it takes a human child to become minimally self-sufficient.

The waning of these hormones often signals what we've come to know as "the seven-year itch": that moment when couples begin to stray, or begin to want to.

I can't remember which publication I read this bit in, it might very well have been Psych Today, but it seems to be fairly well documented, biopsychology-wise.

3/01/2006 7:25 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

dark daughta: Thanks for visiting. I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the topic!

anastasia: Hope you had a good night's rest. Excellent point. I guess when it all boils down, all of romance and love is just a bunch of well-timed neurotransmitters playing a little symphony in our brains. Which I suppose could really take the romance out of romance. But what you say is true--that this stuff happens at all is pretty wondrous.

chelsea girl: they briefly mention there's a chemical response that allows people to stay together long enough to raise an offspring in one of the articles (I think the Psych Today one), but they don't really elaborate, so thanks for doing so. A related aside: interestingly, in two articles I've read, they've given different estimates for when romantic feelings leave and comfort (and sometimes boredom) take over. One article I read said three years, one said five-ish, and the one you read suggests seven. The three and five ones didn't mention kids, though. Which sometimes gets me wondering if it's just too easy for scientists and journalists to interpret scientific results to fit the lifestyle choices they want to support, you know? In different articles I read, they also sometimes used the scientific facts to validate "why men wander more than women," while in others they used the same facts for entirely different points. Hm.

3/02/2006 12:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A question was posed about " injecting exciting sex " to help sustain a relationship by increasing dopamine ( or whatever ) levels ( Lust ).

What is " exciting sex" to you? It's different for EVERYONE, although I would imagine it is similar ( to a degree, of course ) in the stated low,medium, and high individuals.

Additionally, not ALL long-term couples stop having sex. Many couples use your " exciting sex " solution by engaging in extramarital sex ( including approved by, engaged with, and unknown to their partner).

Monogamy works for some people. Unfortunately, the IDEA of monogamy works for the mejority of people for selfish reasons. ( i.e. - I am the only one he/she is with.....while at the same time "cheating" on them )

The simple fact is, if our actions counted as democratic votes on the legality of monogamy, it would be a crime :)

11/11/2007 4:33 PM  

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