Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Chemistry of Love

Love it turns out is a drug.

A recent UCLA study shows that the very sight of a loved one can ease your pain.

"We indeed found that women holding their partner's hand reported significantly less pain than holding a stranger's hand or inanimate object..."

"It's amazing to me that love can have the same effect as Acetaminophen, as Tylenol."

Antropologist Helen Fisher says love is better than Tylenol! Fisher, who has looked at love for years, says affairs of the heart are often functions of the brain. "In simple terms, one of the parts of the brain involved in rewards and cravings - the ventral tegmental area (or VTA) - is flooded with the chemical dopamine when you do something pleasurable (like, say, eat chocolate) or see someone you're in love with . . . no matter how many years you've known them."

"The brain is built to respond," Fisher said. "We are an animal that is built to love."

Fisher and neurologist Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York also scanned college students in the throes of young love, and found that the part of the brain that makes true love so durable also makes rejection so agonizing. "When you've been dumped, you're still madly in love with the person," said Brown. "As a matter of fact, looking at a picture of the person still brings you some reward. And that's part of the problem. I wish it didn't!"

Science can't completely save us from heartbreak, but according to author Tara Parker-Pope, it can help. "I think science teaches us the value of love and can help us make better decisions," said Parker-Pope. Her upcoming book "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage" (Dutton) describes the science behind relationships. "...there's a whole lot going on beyond the conscious mind, beyond conscious decision-making, when we find ourselves drawn to another person and attracted to another person."

But beyond animal attraction, there's a mathematical ratio that can predict whether love lasts: 5 to 1. Five positive interactions to every one negative, like a critical comment, said Parker-Pope:

"A pat on the shoulder or a squeeze of the hand or a 'Honey, you look pretty today' or 'Gosh, I'm proud of you' or 'I like you in that suit.' Those little moments are highly protective of a marriage, and good marriages have them at least on a 5-to-1 basis.

What does all this have to do with me?

Life took an unexpected turn for me. A turn toward a younger more innocent time. Towards happier days of long ago. And because it did, the life I have now became more pleasant. I walk around with a smile on my lips nearly all the time, and my head full of conversation, jokes, and wit. To share so much with someone is stimulating. Enticing. Euphoric. Addicting.

Apparently, if the above studies are to be believed, this connection has triggered my dopamine levels. I realized I haven't felt like this in a very long time. To someone for just a little while, I am interesting, funny, smart, and amazing. It's been a long time since I felt anyone gave a damn about me that way. It is eye opening. It makes your heart beat faster, your step lighter. It's like I put glasses on. Not rose colored ones, but big magnifying ones so that I can see all the nuances of the life I'm living. How stifled I am. How psychologically harmful this life has been. I don't have a 5:1 ratio in my relationship. Mine would probably be the opposite. Five negative to one positive. No wonder I spend so much time apologizing.

A door has opened and on the other side is a secret garden. I can see through a little crack into the life that might have been. And the life that might yet be if I let myself move on. I don't know yet if I can open it all the way. Don't know if I have the strength to break the bonds that bind me to this side. I'm so afraid. I've lived like this for so long it seems normal. That world out there is very foreign and frightening. There is safety in the shelter of continuity and repetition. Comfort in the arms of the everyday. It too is a very strong drug.

But from this new self-discovery, I've learned other things too. That I could bloom again in the right environment. That there is sun in freedom. Fresh air if I open the window, and how wonderful it feels!

My life is a journey. My journey. A series of lessons on humanity. The good, the bad and the ugly. Kind of like a choose your own adventure book. You pack your backpack and pick a road. As obstacles and opportunities arise you make choices. A shortcut. Down a cliff or over a mountain? Proceed with caution or leap without looking. You must live with the consequences. All of them. And there will be fallout, that's a given. And there will be guilt, loads of guilt. Never look back with regret but learn from your mistakes. Put the bad choices behind you, and don't carry the guilt. It's far too heavy. Let it go. Take only the love.

I think of God as my traveling companion. He gives no opinions, doesn't lesson the fear, prevent the sorrow or carry a map. But, he does hang on to the rope! Recently, he and I had a conversation about my life choices.

I thanked God for connecting to my past again. That if tomorrow it disappeared back into the mists of time, that for a while I had laughed out loud again with joy. My loneliness had been eased. That I felt like that 18 year old girl again, when life was brand new and fresh with no mistakes in it. I told my parents I loved and missed them. That I hoped I wasn't a disappointment. That I was trying hard to be strong but it was hard. The road I was walking on was terrible rocky at the moment, and causing me much pain. Why Mike? Why this life? I wasn't angry, just sad and confused. I felt cheated. I had a bad case of the "what ifs". I was missing my father's counsel, comfort and wisdom.

In the early morning hours my father came. I have not seen him smile like that in such a very long time. He gave me his whole body to lean on. I woke crying with his arms around me and one of his very large hands cradling my head as if I were a little girl again. He said that I should remember that I had Elisabeth and Sarah. They were the reason it was Mike. They needed to be exactly what and who they were right now. It's enough. For now.

My journey has placed me in a precarious position. My life ship is lost at sea. I can see the shore but I am unsure of how to reach it. Do I stay the course? Or do I chart a new one?


"Looking for a Mate.
Sail with me through life my dear,
Hope shall guide and love shall steer,"