Questions: Love and Other Drugs

Posted on May 25, 2011


If ever I do find myself in the halls of academia as a professor rather than a student, I think I’d like to teach a class on love—mainly because I’m not sure I understand it. And I’m not sure anyone else has a good grip on it either. It’s one of those words where we rarely know or fall back upon the dictionary definition, and although we almost all feel as if we’ve known it or understand it to some extent, we can’t explain it save in the most Potter Stewartian terms. The fact, then, that I’ve never heard of a class devoted to love is strange, given the ubiquity of the concept in our lives and yet the completely erratic nature of the term and the sentiment.

Though the course would primarily concern a variety of expressions of love through history, literature, and philosophy (interdisciplinary studies being an educational buzzword, that’s another reason this class should already exist), there’d also have to be a good sprinkling of neuroscience and neural-based psychology thrown in—that’s the field where some of the most interesting studies on love and interpersonal connections are being done right now. It never really rings true to talk about something as sentimental as love in purely chemical terms, but doing so may be one of the best ways for us to come to terms with our own conceptions of and desired gains from love and the ones we love—the recognition of the more animal and essential aspects of love, and the recognition of our conscious pushback against those primal aspects of the permeating emotion.

Love’s been on my mind of late—not for any particularly angst-fueled, sentimental, or happy reason, but just because there have been a few decent stories on the subject in the past few days. This Jezebel article particularly speaks to one of the more fascinating and confounding aspects of love—its narcotic properties.

The notion of the article, that one can be addicted to love in a real sense, rings true on an experiential basis. It explains why some people fly from partner to partner and others are able to stay so silent. And it fits well with what we understand of the brain’s reactions to love.

Love progresses in three distinct stages as far as the brain is concerned—initial lust, which gets you to approach the interest in a mad fit; attraction, the love-sick puppy phase; and long-lasting attachment. Each stage involves the release of different chemicals, those for lust and for attraction activating the same hormones and reactions as hard drugs, sometimes quite explicitly. One can understand, in that light, the point about addiction to love.

But that just releases a bevy of questions about love. As it is essentially a drug and a mental illness that is useful for mating and bonding mates, does that mean it is still adaptive for modern society? Does that explain the aversion of many to polyamorous situations? And how does one explain the evolution of polygamy with this neurological picture in mind, or the flourishing of non-traditional relationships (someone should write this book, as I’ve never seen it addressed)?

Perhaps some people start with different neurocheical factors. And of course external events can have a great impact on one’s ability to produce various sorts of neurochemicals, perhaps explaining why those afflicted by depression can alternately have trouble expressing or become intensely dependent upon love. Does that mean though that love can be dangerous for some? Should we actively dissuade those with addictive personalities or with a mental disorder from pursuing love in their lives? (And actually, does the neurochemistry of love help to explain the difficulties people with addictive personalities have in love—why some men are so prone to cheat and why, perhaps, marriages crumble due to more than just alcohol?)

I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that the immediate reaction of most would be, “No, everyone deserves a chance at love.” This is where it gets tricky and interesting.

The difficulty of pinning down a definition of love—perhaps it is due to our different biological experiences of love in relation to the way another experiences love. But perhaps the person we experience love with and the expectations that we have of love can serve as a top-down mechanism for control of the chemical processes and animal desires that enter into relationships. Maybe there’s something to be said for soul mates in that one finds another person with the right philosophical and biological stance on love, the balance of needs and desires and preconceptions working out to a stabilization of the two (because everyone stands a bit off-balance in life). Reminds me a bit of this song.

But as I think about this, I can’t help but mention one aspect of long-term relationships. I cannot remember the technical name for this, but I believe it’s called transactive memory, the process by which one surrenders pieces of knowledge to their partner, such that the two specialize tasks and abilities to the point where, if carried out too far, the two cease to be independent beings and almost meld together. It’s sad to watch people like my grandmother, who, after my grandfather passed away a few years ago, has wandered about lost, feeling incomplete and letting herself slip into oblivion.

There are risks to relationships. There is fear in love. Do we avoid it by striving to retain independence? Or does that in and of itself kill some of the potency of love and endanger the potential gains of the relationship? Which do we prefer, the security of remaining discrete individuals, the druggie thrill of new relationships, or the risk and possible great gains of the long term?

It’s these questions and more that make me pause when I consider love and relationships. There really ought to be a class—not because any course could teach one what love is, but because the act of consciously critiquing and questioning our conceptions of love may be the only thing that can help us find our unique definitions of the term, help us figure out what we really want, how the expectations of others may be different, and so on. I just think it’d be a fun, masturbatory course that could actually save a bit of heartache along the way.

So here’s a goal for the coming weeks: I think I’ll go ahead and design a mini-course in “Love.” How’s that sound? Just for my own purposes, but maybe I’ll post it later. If you have any recommendations for what I should put on this jokey (yet serious) syllabus, shoot me a comment.

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