Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Science of Love

Dude, I need a fix of vasopressin. I’m tripping on this prolactin, give me another hit.  Man that oxytocin was awesome, but now I’ve got the munchies…where are the Cheetos?  I’m completely addicted to those drugs….the drugs of love.  Yep, as the immortal words of Robert Palmer, along with a bunch of scary looking women with slicked-back hair, told me in 1986:

Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff,
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love.

I was 16 then, and I didn’t really know what love was.  Yes, I loved my family, but they were always there and around so I didn’t really know it was an addiction.  Sure, I’m addicted to Oxygen too, but it’s just a part of life, and they’ll always be there for me.  No, I didn’t really start to know what love was until Jack’s mom came into my life over a decade after Robert Palmer spoke (sung) those immortal words.  I’m not talking about the initial stages of love—those are great stages induced by testosterone and estrogen (Stage 1. Lust) or dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin (Stage 2. Attraction).  No, I’m talking about that deep love that the scientists call ‘Stage 3. Attachment’, but you and I call it real love. The love that makes you want  to be together forever.  In sickness and in health.  The love that makes you want to be with that person all of the time. That person is a part of you and you are a part of them.  You suffer when they suffer.  You’re happy when they’re happy.  You want them to achieve the best they can, no matter what, and you miss them when they’re gone.  Addiction.  Well, the neuroendocrinologists tell us it’s an addiction to oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin.  Not very romantic, huh?

“Do you take this woman to be your wife, to cuddle with in order to stimulate oxytocin and to take care of your offspring in order to pass your genes onto the next generation?”

“I do.”

So, what about love for your children?  When a child is born, love is instantaneous.  Of course, the mother has been awash with hormones for 9 months, and so perhaps that’s not too surprising.  And, it turns out Dads are also building hormone levels during this time, and losing their testosterone  (so that’s the reason I’m growing breasts).  All preparing to help this pooping and crying helpless little creature make it in this crazy world.  Two parts oxytocin, a sprinkle of vasopressin, a dash of prolactin…blend, heat at 98.6 degrees for 9 months, and instant love. Serves 2.  In fact, recent studies suggest that the increasing proportion of fathers in the birthing room, and the resulting hormones they get from that experience, have increased their overall participation in the child-rearing process (but there’s obviously a chicken and egg problem here).  Yep, notice that those same hormones I talked about above, especially good old oxytocin, are there.  The love you have for your spouse is stimulated by the same hormones that stimulate the love you have for your baby. 

But as men, why do we love our spouses and children so much?  Doesn’t evolutionary theory suggest we should go out there and spread our seed as far and wide as possible?  Have as many offspring as we can?  Yes, there’s a certain drive to do that among many species, and even in some human cultures.  But think about it.  How hard is it to raise a child by yourself?  Many many people do it, and do a wonderful job--and I have so much respect for those people.  But most need a hand from family, from daycare, from a babysitter, from someone.  Heck, sometimes we need two people just to get Jack dressed and fed in the morning.

Human babies are among the most helpless, for the longest period of time, of any species in the animal kingdom.  I mean, seriously, if we let Jack out on his own right now, in about 5 minutes he’d be running around in a busy street with a bunch of wood chips in his mouth and a pair of scissors in his hands (and yes, he’s done each of these on several occasions, just not all at the same time).  The only reason we’ve all made it through life as far as we have is because of our parents and the other folks who kept us out of trouble for many years.  In evolutionary speak, if we want our genes to make it to the next generation, so that they can procreate themselves, we have to protect them.  And, right now, half of my genes are inside of a tiny human who’s more adorable than I can say (see picture to the right), but is as stupid as he is helpless, and I have to protect him.  I have to cuddle with him.  I have to be with him and love him all of the time. 

Oxytocin is just a stimulant to help me accomplish what I need to accomplish as a father and husband, just like caffeine is a stimulant to help me accomplish pretty much anything that has to do with using my brain.  But unlike caffeine, which I can get anytime I need from the espresso machine, I get my oxytocin from touch, from cuddling, and from being near my loved ones. 

I’ve always loved Jack, from the second he was born (and before).  But after doing a bit of research on the chemistry of love, I think I have a bit of a better understanding of my feelings.  According to some statistics, fathers in the U.S. spent on average ~15 minutes a day with their children in 1975.  Seriously, 15 minutes?  I spend that much time every day wiping Jack’s butt (if I haven’t mentioned it, he poops a lot).  In 1995, it was more like 2 hours a day.  I’m not sure what the numbers are today, or where these numbers came from--they are a bit hard to believe--but I would suspect that on average, fathers are spending much more time with their kids now.  And what this means is that they’re stimulating more of those powerful love drugs and becoming more addicted to being with their families; it’s a positive feedback. For me, I think the fact that we co-slept with Jack for the first several months of his life, and I carried him around in the Baby Bjorn all of the time really got my oxytocin going.  Now that I’m a stay-at-home dad, I spend at least 90% of his awake time with him (sadly, he no longer wants to nap on top of me), and my addiction is through the roof.

In pragmatic terms, evolutionary biologists talk about ‘kin selection’.  We want to help those around us who share our genes in order to help those genes make it on to the next generation.  Many of our social behaviors, including feelings of love, can be explained by this principle.  When talking of kin selection, the evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, famously said he’d lay down his life for 2 brothers or 8 cousins, referring to the fact that we, on average, share 50% of our genes with our siblings and 12.5% with our cousins.  

While the principles of kin selection might be relevant on average, over thousands of generations and millions of people, who really acts like this on a day-to-day basis?  When I first learned the principles of kin selection and other arguments about human behavior, I remember getting into late night arguments with friends about altruism. There was no such thing as true altruism, I thought.  Everyone wants something in return for their actions.  Mother Teresa?  Nope, not even her, I argued.  But I think I was wrong.  These hormones that we are so addicted to have us so madly in love with our spouses, with our children, with our families, that we’d do things that anyone doing the math of genetics would say do not make sense. These hormones betray our genes.

The human species needs cooperation.  For raising babies, for getting food and making shelter, and for creating this fall’s line-up of reality TV shows and sitcoms.  So it makes sense that love has evolved deep in our psyche.  To have our attachment to our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins.  To have us so hopelessly intertwined and in love with our spouse that we stick around to help raise the children.  To have us raise our own children, and to protect them at all costs.

But the expression of love doesn’t always make logical sense.  We can’t titer our hormones to say “my child shares 50% of my genes, so I’ll love him 50% as much as I love myself”.  This is the kind of love we often call ‘unconditional’.  Unconditional love doesn’t seem to make sense evolutionarily.  It is something bigger and broader than that.  Maybe it’s the expression of our hormones out of control, or maybe it’s something beyond the constraints of genetics and neuroendocronology.  Maybe unconditional love is the stuff of faith, inspiration, and belief in some higher power.  And when we have it, and we have it good, we get addicted to it.  We want to be with that person, we want to help that person, we want to right any wrongs that we have done, we’ll do anything we can do to keep that love going and are terrified to lose it.  We need that fix because it’s the very essence of who we are.

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to love……

….now where are those damn Cheetos?

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