Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, And Attachment
Did you ever experience the unsettling sensethat your sexual desires, romantic longings,and feelings of long-term emotional unionwere racing down different tracks? Andperhaps ask yourself: Which of these is love?
The three tracks may be differentbrain circuits, says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University conductingresearch on the brain chemistry of the emotions associated with mating, reproduction,and parenting. With classic understatement,she suggests that the three emotional systems—lust, attraction, and attachment—“are somewhat disconnected in human beings…” Butthe situation is not hopeless, Fisher argues;the role of the prefrontal cortex in humansis to control and direct these emotions—if we so choose.
Published: January 1, “What t’is to love?” Shakespeare asked. Thousands of answers have been offered—but surprisingly few by biologists, including brain scientists. Perhaps at some level scientists share the poet’s conceit that love is ineffable, a human ﬁfth dimension beyond reason’s ken. While scientists regard other complex emotional states such as depression, anxiety, or fear as complex, but not unfathomable, love is relegated to the poets and songsters.
Neglecting the biology of the emotions that direct mating and reproduction, emotions that in our species are sometimes called “love,” has had tragic consequences. Certainly such love can be a joyous state, but it is also capable of producing deeply disturbing, even dangerous results. At least 25 percent of homicides in the United States involve spouses, sexual partners, or sexual rivals. Each year, some one million American women are followed and harassed by rejected lovers; 370,000 men are stalked by former partners; and approximately 1.8 million wives in the United States are beaten by their husbands. In fact, male sexual jealousy is the foremost cause of wife battering in cultures worldwide. Husbands, although to a lesser degree, are physically abused by wives. Men and women in societies everywhere can experience clinical depression when a love relationship fails; and psychologists say that a signiﬁcant percentage of those who commit suicide do so because they have been rejected by a beloved.
Love is a powerful force; the vast majority of Americans marry. But the divorce rate in the United States is expected to reach 67 percent in the next decade. Currently, some 80 percent of divorced men and 72 percent of divorced women remarry; but 54 percent and 61 percent, respectively, divorce again. High divorce and remarriage rates are seen in many other cultures, as well. It is time to investigate the biology of this bittersweet experience we call love.
Three Emotion Systems that Complicate Human Life
I believe that three primary, distinct, but interrelated emotion systems in the brain mediate mating, reproduction, and the rearing of young: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each emotion system is correlated with a speciﬁc neurobiology in the brain; each is associated with a different repertoire of behavior; and each evolved to direct a speciﬁc aspect of reproduction in birds and mammals.
THE SEX DRIVE (libido or lust) is characterized by the craving for sexual gratiﬁcation and associated primarily with the hormones (the estrogens and the androgens). The sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with any appropriate partner.
THE ATTRACTION SYSTEM (in humans termed “passionate love,” “obsessive love,” or “infatuation”) is characterized by increased energy and the focusing of attention on a preferred mating partner. In humans, attraction is also associated with feelings of exhilaration, intrusive thinking about the beloved, and the craving for emotional union. Attraction, I hypothesize, is associated in the brain primarily with high levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine and with low levels of serotonin. This emotion system evolved chieﬂy to enable males and females to distinguish among potential mating partners, conserve their mating energy, prefer genetically superior individuals, and pursue these individuals until insemination had been completed.
THE ATTACHMENT SYSTEM (termed “companionate love” in humans) is characterized in birds and mammals by behavior that may include defense of a mutual territory, mutual nest building, mutual feeding and grooming, separation anxiety, and shared parental chores. In humans, attachment is also characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union. Attachment is associated in the brain primarily with the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin. This emotion system evolved to motivate individuals to sustain their afﬁliations long enough to complete the parental duties of their species.
For each system, the neural circuits can be expected to vary from one species to the next, among individuals within a species, and over the life of an individual. The three emotion systems also act in concert with one another and with other bodily systems. For example, a person may begin a sexual liaison merely for sexual pleasure, then become romantically involved with this sexual partner. He can become deeply attached to this partner, too, and these enhanced feelings of attachment can be explained biologically. After orgasm, levels of vasopressin rise in men; levels of oxytocin rise in women. These hormones are known to cause attachment, and probably contribute to the feelings of closeness after sexual intercourse.
The three emotion systems can act independently, as well. Individuals in approximately 90 percent of bird species form seasonal or lifelong pair bonds, becoming attached and rearing their offspring together. Yet “a lot of birds are having a bit on the side,” reports Jeffrey Black of Cambridge University.1 In fact, individuals in only 10 percent of the 180 or so species of socially monogamous songbirds are sexually faithful to their mating partners; the rest engage in “extra-pair” copulations.
Likewise, men and women can express deep attachment for a long-term spouse or mate at the same time they express attraction for someone else, and also while they feel the sex drive in reaction to situations unrelated to either partner. We are physiologically capable of “loving” more than one person at a time.
The independence of these emotion systems may have evolved among our ancestors to enable males and females to take advantage of several mating strategies simultaneously. With this brain architecture, they could form a pair bond with one partner and practice clandestine adultery too, thereby taking advantage of rare “extra” mating opportunities. They could also practice polygamy if the opportunity arose. But for modern humans, these distinct brain circuits have enormously complicated life, contributing to today’s worldwide patterns of adultery and divorce; the high incidence of sexual jealousy, stalking, and spouse battering; and the prevalence of homicide, suicide, and clinical depression associated with romantic rejection.
What is the biology of these emotion systems? Why did they evolve in humans? To what extent do they control our lives? How should we use this information in the practice of medicine and the law? I will consider lust, attraction, and attachment separately, and focus my attention on attraction, the least understood of these fundamental emotion systems, the one we have come to call “romantic love.”
Lust: “The Interolerable Neural Itch”
W. H. Auden called the sex drive “an intolerable neural itch.” Scientists have long regarded that itch as a distinct emotion system that is innate and common to all birds and mammals—lodged in the avian and mammalian brain. Moreover, they have long understood at least the basic neuroanatomy and physiology of the libido, agreeing that it is predominantly associated with the androgens in both men and women. The estrogens also play substantial roles in the sex drive in many mammals, but only a secondary role in humans.
The biological relationship between the sex drive and the attraction system has not been well deﬁned in most mammals; but in the small rodents called prairie voles, studies have shown that the two systems regularly interact. When a female prairie vole receives a drop of male urine on her upper lip, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is released in speciﬁc areas of the olfactory bulb in her brain. This helps to stimulate the release of estrogen and contributes to triggering sexual behavior. In the prairie vole, attraction is a brief, spontaneous, chemically induced, excitatory reaction that initiates sexual desire, sexual physiology, and sexual behavior.
Lust and attraction do not always go hand in hand in people. When middle-aged men and women are injected with testosterone, their sex drive increases, but they do not fall in love. Moreover, men and women can express sexual desire toward those for whom they feel no obsessive attraction or deep attachment.
“Lust is the oldest lion of them all,” says an Italian proverb. The factors that trigger the libido vary from one individual and one species to the next, but the sensation itself, which is associated with a speciﬁc constellation of neural correlates, evolved to initiate the mating process. This emotion system, however, probably also contributes to many cases of date rape and other forms of inappropriate human sexual conduct.
Attraction: The “Delirium of Eros”
Robert Lowell called love “this whirlwind, this delirium of Eros.” Romantic love, obsessive love, passionate love, infatuation: Call it what you will, almost all men and women around the world have known its ecstasy and anguish.
In 1991, anthropologists surveyed accounts of 166 societies and found evidence of romantic love in 147 of them. (In the other 19, researchers had simply failed to examine this aspect of daily living). Everywhere they looked, they found evidence of this passion. People sang love songs or composed romantic verse. They performed love magic, carried love charms, or brewed love potions. Some eloped. Some committed suicide or homicide because of unrequited love. In many societies, myths and fables portrayed romantic entanglements. Thus, anthropologists believe that romantic attraction is a universal or near-universal human experience. I will go even further: I think romantic love, attraction, is common to all mammals and birds.
Naturalists have implicitly acknowledged the existence of this emotion system for over a century. In 1871, Darwin wrote of a female mallard duck who became attracted to a pintail duck, a bird of a different species. Citing the report of a colleague, Darwin wrote, “It was evidently a case of love at ﬁrst sight, for she swam around the newcomer caressingly… From that hour she forgot her old partner.” The animal literature is ﬁlled with such descriptions. Dogs, horses, gorillas, canaries: Males and females of many species assiduously avoid mating with some individuals and resolutely focus their attention on others.
Darwin further discussed attraction when he wrote about the evolution of the “secondary sexual characteristics,” all of the gaudy, cumbersome accoutrements that creatures ﬂaunt, such as the peacock’s unwieldy tail feathers. He reasoned that birds and mammals evolved these bodily decorations for one of two reasons: to impress or ﬁght members of the same sex to win breeding opportunities or to attract members of the opposite sex. Yet he failed to note that these physical traits must trigger some type of physiological attraction response in the viewer.
Today many scientists call this attraction “favoritism,” “selective proceptivity,” “sexual preference,” “sexual choice,” or “mate choice.” As yet, however, they have not examined the biological process by which the viewer comes to prefer and choose a mate. I theorize that birds and mammals have evol
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