I've gone crazy! No it's just love, baby

There may really be a 'love potion number 9' in the form of dopamine, the chemical reaction people go crazy for. Photo / Thinkstock
There may really be a 'love potion number 9' in the form of dopamine, the chemical reaction people go crazy for. Photo / Thinkstock

"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore ..." so goes the classic Dean Martin song.

But, when dopamine hits the brain? Well apparently that's when things really get crazy.

As Neely Tucker wrote a while back in the Washington Post about research showing love to be a chemical reaction: "It's all about dopamine, baby, this One Great True Love, this passionate thing (for which) we'd burn down the house and blow up the car ... just to taste on the tip of the tongue.

"You crave it because your brain tells you to. Because if a wet kiss on the suprasternal notch - while, say, your lover has you pinned against a wall in the corner of a dance club - doesn't fire up the ventral tegmentum in the Motel 6 of your mind, well, he's not going to send you roses tomorrow.

"Dopamine. God's little neurotransmitter. Better known by its street name, romantic love."

Helen Fisher is an internationally renowned anthropologist and an expert on the science and chemistry of, well, love. Her book Why Him, Why Her? looks at this chemistry connection.

When she studied MRIs of people newly in romantic passion she found that the effect of dopamine on the brain is similar to the rush we would get from ... cocaine.

So, there may really be a "love potion number 9!"

Now, according to Fisher, her research - which has been, in part, both gleaned from and used in her position as a consultant on chemistry.com - shows there are four basic personality types, each with its own chemical markers, and they have a lot to do with whom we love. The Builder is calm, persistent, loyal and traditional while Explorers are curious, creative, adventurous, impulsive and self-reliant. Directors are analytical, focused, tough-minded, emotionally contained while Negotiators are imaginative, creative, intuitive, sympathetic and idealistic.

Fisher says we may have traits from across the four basic groups. But most of us tend to be dominant in one, often with a "minor" in another. (By Fisher's lights, I'm definitely a Builder/Explorer.)

So, who is attracted to whom? Fisher says she's found that explorers tend to be attracted to explorers and builders to builders. But negotiators and directors tend to be attracted to each other. Anyway, what makes one attracted to one particular person, or none, out of a room of "appropriate" connections? It has something to do with what we are looking for in love but thankfully, sometimes, even chemistry is a mystery.

And sometimes we miss its most obvious lessons. There was no real news, I suppose, in what Lauren Slater wrote in National Geographic a few years ago about Fisher's then new findings, "In the right proportions, dopamine creates intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards ... Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive, and sometimes you don't."

Okay, but what about when the "high" fades, which it almost has to if we are going to live productive (and sane) lives?

Well, there might be "news" in this: As National Geographic put it, brain studies from around the world show that almost always the dopamine high of romantic love eventually fades as the brain learns to "tolerate" it, just like it might increased doses of cocaine. The good news is that in long-term couples, the dopamine eventually gets replaced by oxytocin, a bonding chemical. (The same chemical released when we hug our kids.)

The bad news is when people in a marriage leave a potentially deep, life-long oxytocin connection in order to find another temporary dopamine high. Or, when one jumps through a series of dopamine highs and never experiences an oxytocin connection.

Yes, the dopamine high is magically fantastic. But we are a culture that too often forgets that true love comes in many different, and yet very wonderful, flavours.

Now that's amore.

Happy Valentine's Day.

- AAP

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