A Love Story As Old As the Oldest Human, What’s Behind Love?
What is love?
It’s Valentine’s Day, so love is naturally on everyone’s mind (for better or for worse). Amidst the consumer chaos that surrounds the holiday, online dating, and horoscopes, perhaps it makes sense to analyze what love is. How did it come to be?
Love is universal; an expanded, connected relationship with another being that spans all cultures. (Reis, Harry T. and Arthur Aron. 2008). Sure love has adaptational significance which predates the homosapien species. Yet our language, introspection, and other high functional cognitive abilities make human love incredibly unique.
Human love can be regarded as an advanced form of mammalian courtship attraction. Insects may choose a mate based on a showy display of ornamental wonder, but there is no feeling or pleasure stimulation occurring in that act. In contrast, mammalian and avian species react to courtship and mating through pleasure. Although the brain uses different systems for courtship and sexual drive, they both work in tandem.
What is fascinating is the effect that mate selection has on the brain’s reward system. Advanced neurochemical mechanisms are involved with courting. When a rat encounters a specific individual to whom he is attracted, his brain releases monoamine in more concentrated levels, affecting the dopamine rich neural regions in the brain’s pleasure center. The rat’s brain circuits have become rewired by the triggering of this lovely lady rat, leaving him with an “altered state of mind.” It turns out that the motivation for partner attachment is the driving force for species specific survival.
Human love is as old as the love experienced amongst the first homosapiens. Which means our love story dates back 200,000 years or more. Many species exhibit forms of attraction lasting anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of weeks, but humans partake in intense early stage courtship lasting anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Our distinct concept of love played a critical role in our evolution, shaping our social intelligence and the cooperative skills required for survival. Today we can even link love to better overall health.
Our homosapien love story stems from the same courtship rituals and brain patterns found amongst our mammalian counterparts. But ours gets deeper, way deeper. We experience ecstasy when our relationship is going well and despair and depression when it is not. We suffer from separation anxiety when we are away from our partner, experience intense sweating or heart pounding in their presence, and we willingly change our daily habits to accommodate them. These increased mood swings are directly related to the physiological and psychological effects love has on the human brain. This all points to dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain. Our very special neural mechanism evolved for the very specific purpose of mate selection which meant everything when considering the hardship involved in raising offspring. (Fisher, Helen E. 2006)
Oddly enough, our sex drive originates from a different distinct brain center than romantic love and courtship rituals. While sexual love promotes mating with a range of partners, romantic love and courtship focus mating energies on one specific individual. We must realize that love is not an emotion, but a more complex state, a motivation system for building intimate relationships with a long term partner.
Romantic love is an evolutionary phenomenon. Love is cross-cultural and universal after all. For homosapiens, our unique romantic love has no boundaries and it is seemingly complex. We see attempted explanations of love throughout civilization; in cave paintings, love songs, poems, and even advanced neuroimaging techniques. From the dawn of our time, we have been utilizing current technology to better understand this strange and uniquely human asset.