The last time you had sex, there was arguably not a thought in your head. . . . [I]f it was that kind of sex that’s the whole reason you took up having sex in the first place–the out-of-breath, out-of-body, can- you-believe-this- is-actually-happening kind of sex–the rational you had probably taken a powder.Losing our faculties over a matter like sex ought not to make much sense for a species like ours that relies on its wits. A savanna full of predators, after all, was not a place to get distracted. But the lure of losing our faculties is one of the things that makes sex thrilling–and one of the very things that keeps the species going. As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you’re alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don’t consume resources better spent on the young. Anything that encourages you to breed now and breed plenty gets that job done.
But mating and the rituals surrounding it make us come unhinged in other ways too, ones that are harder to explain by the mere babymaking imperative. There’s the transcendent sense of tenderness you feel toward a person who sparks your interest. There’s the sublime feeling of relief and reward when that interest is returned. There are the flowers you buy and the poetry you write and the impulsive trip you make to the other side of the world just so you can spend 48 hours in the presence of a lover who’s far away. That’s an awful lot of busywork just to get a sperm to meet an egg–if merely getting a sperm to meet an egg is really all that it’s about.
Human beings make a terrible fuss about a lot of things but none more than romance. . . .
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On its good days (and love has a lot of them), all this seems to make perfect sense. Nearly 30 years ago, psychologist Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii and sociologist Susan Sprecher now of Illinois State University developed a 15-item questionnaire that ranks people along what the researchers call the passionate-love scale. Hatfield has administered the test in places as varied as the U.S., Pacific islands, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan and, most recently, India and has found that no matter where she looks, it’s impossible to squash love. “It seemed only people in the West were goofy enough to marry for passionate love,” she says. “But in all of the cultures I’ve studied, people love wildly.”
What scientists, not to mention the rest of us, want to know is, Why? What makes us go so loony over love? Why would we bother with this elaborate exercise in fan dances and flirtations, winking and signaling, joy and sorrow? “We have only a very limited understanding of what romance is in a scientific sense,” admits John Bancroft, emeritus director of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind., a place where they know a thing or two about the way human beings pair up. But that limited understanding is expanding. The more scientists look, the more they’re able to tease romance apart into its individual strands–the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, neurochemical processes that make it possible. None of those things may be necessary for simple procreation, but all of them appear essential for something larger. What that something is–and how we achieve it– is only now coming clear.
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If human reproductive behavior is a complicated thing, part of the reason is that it’s designed to serve two clashing purposes. On the one hand, we’re driven to mate a lot. On the other hand, we want to mate well so that our offspring survive. If you’re a female, you get only a few rolls of the reproductive dice in a lifetime. If you’re a male, your freedom to conceive is limited only by the availability of willing partners, but the demands of providing for too big a brood are a powerful incentive to limit your pairings to the female who will give you just a few strong young. For that reason, no sooner do we reach sexual maturity than we learn to look for signals of good genes and reproductive fitness in potential partners and, importantly, to display them ourselves.
“Every living human is a descendant of a long line of successful maters,” says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve adapted to pick certain types of mates and to fulfill the desires of the opposite sex.”
One of the most primal of those desires is that a possible partner smells right. Good smells and bad smells are fundamentally no different from each other; both are merely volatile molecules wafting off an object and providing some clue as to the thing that emitted them. Humans, like all animals, quickly learn to assign values to those scents, recognizing that, say, putrefying flesh can carry disease and thus recoiling from its smell and that warm cookies carry the promise of vanilla, sugar and butter and thus being drawn to them. Other humans carry telltale smells of their own, and those can affect us in equally powerful ways.
But how does one female signal the rest? The answer is almost certainly smell. Pheromones–or scent-signaling chemicals–are known to exist among animals, and while scientists have had a hard time unraveling the pheromonal system in humans, they have isolated a few of the compounds. One type, known as driver pheromones, appears to affect the endocrine systems of others. Since the endocrine system plays a critical role in the timing of menstruation, there is at least a strong circumstantial case that the two are linked. “It’s thought that there is a driver female who gives off something that changes the onset of menstruation in the other women,” says chemist Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
It’s not just women who respond to such olfactory cues. One surprising study published last October in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showed that strippers who are ovulating average $70 in tips per hour; those who are menstruating make $35; those who are not ovulating or menstruating make $50. Other studies suggest that men can react in more romantic ways to olfactory signals. In work conducted by Martie Haselton, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA, women report that when they’re ovulating, their partners are more loving and attentive and, significantly, more jealous of other men. “The men are picking up on something in their partner’s behavior that tells them to do more mate-guarding,” Haselton says.
Scent not only tells males which females are primed to conceive, but it also lets both sexes narrow their choices of potential partners. Among the constellation of genes that control the immune system are those known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which influence tissue rejection. Conceive a child with a person whose MHC is too similar to your own, and the risk increases that the womb will expel the fetus. Find a partner with sufficiently different MHC, and you’re likelier to carry a baby to term.
Studies show that laboratory mice can smell too-similar MHC in the urine of other mice and will avoid mating with those individuals. In later work conducted at the University of Bern in Switzerland, human females were asked to smell T shirts worn by anonymous males and then pick which ones appealed to them. Time and again, they chose the ones worn by men with a safely different MHC. And if the smell of MHC isn’t a deal maker or breaker, the taste is. Saliva also contains the compound, a fact that Haselton believes may partly explain the custom of kissing, particularly those protracted sessions that stop short of intercourse. “Kissing,” she says simply, “might be a taste test.”
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[We've omitted the articles summary of fascinating research on the way the birth-control pill can disable or distort some of those processes, the effect of how a potential partner looks and sounds, the possible interactions between those features, and the "trip-wire" effect of a kiss. We've also omitted the article's summary of Helen Fisher's research, which we've described in other posts.]
Love Gone Wrong
The problem with romance is that it doesn’t always deliver the goods. For all the joy it promises, it can also play us for fools, particularly when it convinces us that we’ve found the right person, only to upend our expectations later. Birth-control pills that mask a woman’s ability to detect her mate’s incompatible MHC are one way bad love can slip past our perimeters. Adrenaline is another. Any overwhelming emotional experience that ratchets up your sensory system can distort your perceptions, persuading you to take a chance on someone you should avoid.
Psychologist Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook says people who meet during a crisis–an emergency landing of their airplane, say–may be much more inclined to believe they’ve found the person meant for them. “It’s not that we fall in love with such people because they’re immensely attractive,” he says. “It’s that they seem immensely attractive because we’ve fallen in love with them.”
If that sounds a lot like what happens when people meet and date under the regular influence of drugs or alcohol, only to sober up later and wonder what in the world they were thinking, that’s because in both cases powerful chemistry is running the show. When hormones and natural opioids get activated, explains psychologist and sex researcher Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, you start drawing connections to the person who was present when those good feelings were created. “You think someone made you feel good,” Pfaus says, “but really it’s your brain that made you feel good.”
Of course, even a love fever that’s healthily shared breaks eventually, if only because–like any fever–it’s unsustainable over time. Fisher sees the dangers of maladaptive love in fMRI studies she’s conducting of people who have been rejected by a lover and can’t shake the pain. In these subjects, as with all people in love, there is activity in the caudate nucleus, but it’s specifically in a part that’s adjacent to a brain region associated with addiction. If the two areas indeed overlap, as Fisher suspects, that helps explain why telling a jilted lover that it’s time to move on can be fruitless–as fruitless as admonishing a drunk to put a cork in the bottle.
Happily, romance needn’t come to ruin. Even irrational animals like ourselves would have quit trying if the bet didn’t pay off sometimes. The eventual goal of any couple is to pass beyond serial dating–beyond even the thrill of early love–and into what’s known as companionate love. That’s the coffee-and-Sunday-paper phase, the board-games-when-it’s-raining phase, and the fact is, there’s not a lick of excitement about it. But that, for better or worse, is adaptive too. If partners are going to stay together for the years of care that children require, they need a love that bonds them to each other but without the passion that would be a distraction. As early humans relied more on their brainpower to survive–and the dependency period of babies lengthened to allow for the necessary learning–companionate bonding probably became more pronounced.
That’s not to say that people can’t stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Aron has conducted fMRI studies of some of those stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. “We wondered if they were really feeling these things,” Aron says. “But it looks like this is really happening.”
These people, however, are the exceptions, and nearly all relationships must settle and cool. That’s a hard truth, but it’s a comforting one too. Long for the heat of early love if you want, but you’d have to pay for it with the solidity you’ve built over the years. “You’ve got to make a transition to a stabler state,” says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Washington. If love can be mundane, that’s because sometimes it’s meant to be.
Calling something like love mundane, of course, is true only as far as it goes. Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joy–as we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn’t something more at work–and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That’s a nut science may never fully crack.
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To read the entire article, which we recommend, click here. For related Situationist posts, go to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “The Situation of Cupid’s Arrow,” “How System Threat Affects Cupid,” and “The Situation of Flirting.”