boat logo

Village Gate

Library Hut


The Chemistry of Love
by Serge Kahili King

I was almost going to call this article "Mechanistic Scientists Strike Again!" However, "The Chemistry of Love" sounds so much better.

Mechanistic science began during the Renaissance in Europe, partly due to an increased interest in actual experiments rather than philosophical and theological discussion, and partly as a reaction against religious restrictions and blind superstition. Out of that came the idea that everything is separate, and that in order to understand the whole of something you have to understand the parts. Another way this is often expressed is that the whole is the sum of its parts.

These ideas led to a further idea that Nature operates like a vast machine, and to an even further idea that, in order to get truly accurate results from an experiment, objectivity was paramount. That is, the observer must distance himself from the experiment, suppressing all feelings and opinions, because they would interfere with the experiment. Eventually, as this form of science became more mechanistic, all emotions, sensations, and non-objective thoughts were considered subjective, and therefore suspect, and were rigorously excluded from experimental consideration. And that brings us to the event that initiated this article.

On February 12, 2009, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald ran an article written by Seth Borenstein titled "Understanding the Science of Romance." Subheadings included "Scientists study brains to unlock the secret of love," and "Brain's regions reveal romance."

Here is a quote from the beginning of the article: "Like any young woman in love, Bianca Aceveda has exchanged valentine hearts with her fiance. But the New York neuroscientist knows better. The source of love is in the head, not the heart."

A few sentences later the statement is made that "love mostly can be understood through brain images, hormones, and genetics."

And what was the source of this conclusion? It appears that when people who claimed to be in love (a subjective decision if there ever was one) were shown photographs of their loved ones, a tiny area in the center of the brain, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) shows activity. This is an area that produces dopamine, a precursor to adrenaline. It also appears that brain scans of people who claim to be broken-hearted show additional activity in the nucleus accumbens, associated with hormones that are associated with addiction. Long-time lovers, instead, show activity in the ventral palladium, an area that produces hormones related to stress reduction, and the raphe nucleus, associated with calming hormones.

People with certain kinds of feelings show activity in certain areas of the brain. That's not surprising, since mind, body, and emotions always interact. The mechanistic interpretation, though, is that the neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones cause the thoughts, feelings, and sensations of love and romance.

One researcher says, "Love works chemically in the brain like a drug addiction." Another one says, "The brokenhearted show more evidence of what I'll call craving. Similar to craving the drug cocaine." The conclusion, derived from these subjective interpretations, is that soon we'll have pills to bring on whatever feelings of love we want to create, or to heal whatever experiences of love are unpleasant.

Here's a subjective opinion of my own. The more we try to ignore the subjective side of love, the less we will ever understand it. That's like trying to understand life by analyzing the chemistry of what is called "living matter," when a definition of that is also subjective.

In fairness, one of the scientists mentioned in the article retains some open-mindedness. He says that, although love might theoretically be stimulated by chemicals, it's better to engage in the behavior that stimulates the chemicals, like hugging, kissing, and intimate contact. And at the end of the article he states, "My wife tells me that flowers work as well. As a scientist it's hard to see how it stimulates the circuits, but I do know they seem to have some effect. And the absence of them seems to have an effect, as well."

palm isle
[Top of page] - Contact us