The Chemistry between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction
Larry Young Brian Alexander
Penguin Group USA, 2012 ($26.95)
How do I love thee? When neuroscientist Young and journalist Alexander started counting, they found many molecular ways. In The Chemistry between Us, the writers highlight the complex chemical processes that create love in the brain and bolster the argument that love is an addiction.
Young has devoted his career to studying the behaviors and neural circuitry of love in the prairie vole, a rodent whose monogamous tendencies resemble our own. Once a prairie vole has found “the one,” the pair will most likely remain companions for life. Young's research has implicated a range of chemical activities—mainly during sex—that build this lifelong bond. In particular, he uncovered how two hormones in the brain, vasopressin in male voles and oxytocin in female voles, regulate social behavior and memory—promoting the recognition of a loved one and the urge to cuddle or defend. In addition, the circulation of dopamine and opioids allows the vole to associate his or her partner with pleasure, thus strengthening their bond. Many of these molecules are identical to those activated in human bonding.
That loving feeling comes at a price. A hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF, builds up in the brains of paramours and parents alike. The CRF system activates a stress response, and this system elicits the painful sensations you feel when your baby cries or your boyfriend dumps you. The system may seem like a nasty trick, but it has its uses. Even when passion fades or a diaper needs changing, the sharp pangs of the CRF system keep families and loved ones together. The CRF system also contributes to the agony an addict feels after the elation wears off. Thus, the authors argue, the highs of intimacy and withdrawals of separation parallel the highs and lows that drug addicts experience.
The Chemistry between Us playfully integrates anecdotes and research, bouncing from bizarre experiments examining how rodents can develop fetishes to real-life stories, such as a woman unable to develop loving bonds because of her lack of human contact in an orphanage as a child. Though occasionally too quick, the book's pace makes it feel like a light read. Understanding love's neurochemistry can't compare with the actual experience, but learning the science can certainly make us appreciate our heritage as loving, social beings.