We may just be a collection of chemicals, but taking reality for all it’s worth doesn’t always mean we sacrifice the story… just the fantasy.
by Kerrie Yang
For as long as we have been able to form coherent thoughts, we have contemplated the nature of love. Perhaps one of the most famous and most referential philosophical thoughts on love comes from Plato’s Symposium: “Each of us, when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the tally-half of a man, and he is always looking for his other half.” For the idealistic (or the naïve), this becomes a search for the soulmate. For those who are a bit more pragmatic, the part of us that separated when Zeus split us in two is simply an unexpectedly suitable partner.
Regardless of one’s perspective on the ‘soul mate,’ countless books, epic poems, sonnets, songs and essays have been written on the spiritual nature of love. On the flip side, we are equally fascinated by the neurology of love, and that which can be explained by the realism of science. Given all the research that has been done to break down the chemical components of romantic love, we can find ourselves wondering if that bond between two people is really just a high, produced by a cocktail of dopamine and oxytocin.
Biology tells us, in the first phases of infatuation—the heady rush, the lust, the passion—are produced by a catecholamine neurotransmitter called dopamine. When examined at the chemical level, those lit-up pathways in the brain tell the body to produce energy, elation, and obsession. Chemistry is responsible for those first few months of surrendering reason to adrenaline. It’s no surprise that cocaine is also a dopamine transporter; the early stages of love can be quite similar to that of cocaine addiction, and the fall off—the heartbreak—is devastating.
When we have enough infatuation induced dopamine running through our system, the adrenaline causing the exultant air of joie de vivre, the feeling becomes addictive. When it doesn’t reach its natural stage of leveling off, when the supply of dopamine is suddenly cut off, the effect can be likened to chills that verge on hypothermia. Serotonin levels are affected and the body suddenly produces far fewer of those chemicals than it was when we first fell in love. The result is depression compounded by lovesickness—withdrawal of the most unbearable sort. Dopamine and its adrenaline rush are often the catalysts of many love stories.
From the moment we are able to see, listen, touch, think, we are saturated with stories of romantic love. As children, we are introduced to the idea through Disney-approved fairy tales and as we get older, we graduate to the classics and their contemporaries. It is also clear that the most popular love stories—the fairy tales, Shakespearean comedies, and poorly written ‘tween romances—end with ‘happily ever after.’ These are the stories about dopamine and ‘love at first sight.’ When Cinderella saw Prince Charming from across the room, they weren’t establishing some sort of spiritual connection; they experienced high dosages of lust coupled with infatuation. Studies have shown that the body cannot continually produce dopamine. At some point, that rush for adventure and passion either dies out completely or paves the way for a calmer and more permanent love chemical: oxytocin.
The problem with writing or singing about the kind of love associated with oxytocin is that it is often perceived as ‘boring.’ Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Romeo and Juliet survive Shakespeare’s play, would their love still be as eternal? In all likelihood, they will grow tired of each other; we can’t maintain relationships on physical attraction and the thrill of the taboo. Let’s assume that they don’t split up, that they, like the Disney movies we know so well, live happily ever after. Happily ever after means accepting the end of the dopamine high and adjusting to the more subdued happiness produced by oxytocin. So why is it that the most marketable version of romantic love is the most temporary stage of romantic love? The answer is simple: ‘Happily ever after’ doesn’t always make for as good a story. The allure of adventure and of unending passion with the one we love is unrealistic and is a fault that is oft criticized by writers whose themes tend to veer closer to realism and postmodernism than romanticism. Though people have always extolled the thrills of love, just as many have commented on the folly. If there is anything substantial to be gleaned from the unsettling number of ‘How to find your Mr. Darcy’ books on the shelves, it is our growing compulsion to replicate these narrative arcs in our individual lives. After all, whether it is dramatic, humorous, light, or traumatic, who doesn’t enjoy a good story? Literary delusion has its appeal, but to indulge in this kind of duplicity is dangerous. Emma Bovary’s grotesque end is one worth mentioning; Emma dies with a gaping mouthful of ink because she eschews reality and attempts to live out the fantasies of ink and paper. And as Humbert Humbert so painfully realizes at the end of his confession, loving Lolita—loving a construction—is merely a “refuge of art”, an imagined romance contained within the space of the unreal and fantastical.
To expect a relationship that is sustained by dopamine alone is akin to literary delusion; if we refuse to accept the exchange of dopamine for oxytocin, we reject reality. And if we think about it, reality can be far more compelling than an illusion. When we forget the vulgarity of reality, we cheat ourselves of experiencing an equally satisfying side of humanity. Beyond the veneer of cheesy professions and tales of star-crossed love, there are far more compelling layers of very human grit. As the wise know, there is something to be said about the trial of being completely vulnerable and living the everyday with another person—an uncontrollable variable. The human body is not equipped to continually produce such high quantities of dopamine, but it is perfectly able to supply us with a steady stream of oxytocin. We trade one drug for another, and though it doesn’t have the same heart-racing effect, it can produce a far more ‘real’ type of joy. Henry Miller best describes living in his memoir, Tropic of Cancer: “Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy… Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy. ”That which produces joy for one person may not necessarily work for another, but Miller’s words are beautiful in that they capture what it means to live as opposed to simply existing. We live as saints, we live as sinners, we suffer for our actions and the actions of others, we revel in the success of our loved ones, and we love all the same in all the shit and misery of failure. Love in the reality of life comes with the requisite misery and the mundane, and regardless of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and whatever chemical our neurotransmitters release, in order to yield ecstasy we must take it in its entirety.
Conversely, and a bit ironically, the Greek idylls also present a surprising perspective that favors not the dopamine rush but its oxytocin complement. The word “idyll,” itself refers to paradise, heaven, the Garden of Eden. Eden isn’t an ongoing adventure, and in its pastoral reproductions, paradise can be understood as monotonous. In fact, paradise is often seen as more circular than linear; every day is more or less the same, but the everyday is bliss. Of course, the Garden of Eden is a myth, but so is Plato’s notion of halves wandering the earth, seeking the one who makes them whole. In the end, we are given a choice between pursuing the myth or the reality. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera gives us Tomas who wonders, “What happens if he…later meets the one who was meant for him, the other part of himself? Whom is he to prefer? The woman from the bulrush basket or the woman from Plato’s myth?”
We are faced with choice: love and ecstasy as Miller describes it to us or the mythical soulmate. For Tomas, he “knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again abandon his paradise and the woman from his dream and betray the “Es muss sein!” of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.”
Perhaps this is the drama of oxytocin, learning that we must choose between pursuing mythical adventures or the joy, and sometimes the boredom, of loving another person—another lump of half-complete, unpolished, unfinished narratives. We may just be a collection of chemicals, but taking reality for all its worth doesn’t always mean we sacrifice the story, just the fantasy.