PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The Pathology of Love

Sam Vaknin

Behavior changes are reminiscent of psychosis and, biochemically speaking, passionate love closely imitates substance abuse.

The unpalatable truth is that falling in love is, in some ways, indistinguishable from a severe pathology. Behavior changes are reminiscent of psychosis and, biochemically speaking, passionate love closely imitates substance abuse. Appearing in the BBC series Body Hits on 4 December 2002, Dr. John Marsden, the head of the British National Addiction Center, said that love is addictive, akin to cocaine and speed. Sex is a "booby trap", intended to bind the partners long enough to bond.

Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College in London showed that the same areas of the brain are active when abusing drugs and when in love. The prefrontal cortex � hyperactive in depressed patients � is inactive when besotted. How can this be reconciled with the low levels of serotonin that are the telltale sign of both depression and infatuation is not known. The initial drive, lust, is brought on by surges of sex hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. These induce an indiscriminate scramble for physical gratification. Attraction transpires once a more-or-less appropriate object is found (with the right body language and speed and tone of voice) and is tied to a panoply of sleep and eating disorders.

A recent study at the University of Chicago demonstrated that testosterone levels in heterosexual men shoot up by one third even during a casual chat with a female stranger. The stronger the hormonal reaction, the more marked the changes in behavior, concluded the authors. This loop may be part of a larger "mating response". In animals, testosterone provokes aggression and recklessness. The hormone's readings in married men and fathers are markedly lower than in single males who are still "playing the field".

Helen Fisher of Rutger University suggests a three-phased model of falling in love. Each stage involves a distinct set of chemicals. The BBC summed it up succinctly and sensationally: "Events occurring in the brain when we are in love have similarities with "mental illness". Moreover, we are attracted to people with the same genetic makeup and smell (pheromones) of our parents. Dr Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago studied heterosexual feminine attraction to sweaty T-shirts formerly worn by males. The closer the smell resembled her father's, the more attracted and aroused the woman became. Falling in love is, therefore, an exercise in proxy incest and a vindication of Freud's much-maligned Oedipus and Electra complexes.

This has been further demonstrated by psychologist David Perrett of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The subjects in his experiments preferred their own faces � in other words, the composite of their two parents � when computer-morphed into the opposite sex.

Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, love is mostly about negative emotions. As Professor Arthur Aron from State University of New York at Stonybrook has shown, in the first few meetings, people misinterpret certain physical cues and feelings � notably fear and thrill � as (falling in) love. Thus, counterintuitively, anxious people � especially those with the "serotonin transporter" gene � are more sexually active (i.e., fall in love more often).

Obsessive thoughts regarding the Loved One and compulsive acts are also common. Perception is distorted as is cognition. "Love is blind" and the lover easily fails the reality test. Falling in love involves the enhanced secretion of b-Phenylethylamine (PEA, or the "love chemical") in the first two-to-four years of the relationship. This natural drug creates an euphoric high and helps obscure the failings and shortcomings of the potential mate. Such oblivion � perceiving only the loved one's good sides while discarding her bad ones � is a pathology akin to the primitive psychological defense mechanism known as "splitting". Narcissists � that is, people suffering from the Narcissistic Personality Disorder � also idealize romantic or intimate partners. A similar cognitive-emotional impairment is common in many mental health conditions. The activity of a host of neurotransmitters � such as Dopamine, Adrenaline (Norepinephrine), and Serotonin � is heightened (or in the case of Serotonin, lowered) in both paramours. Yet such irregularities are also associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and depression.

It is telling that once attachment is formed and infatuation gives way to a more stable and less exuberant relationship, the levels of these substances return to normal. They are replaced by two hormones, endorphins which usually play a part in social interactions (including bonding and sex). These hormones are oxytocin (the "cuddling chemical") and vasopressin. Oxytocin facilitates bonding. It is released in the mother during breastfeeding, in the members of the couple when they spend time together, and when they sexually climax.

Love, in all its phases and manifestations, is an addiction, probably to the various forms of internally secreted norepinephrine, such as the aforementioned amphetamine-like PEA. Love, in other words, is a form of substance abuse. The withdrawal of romantic love has serious mental health repercussions. A study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Kendler, professor of psychiatry and director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, and others, and published in the September issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, revealed that breakups often lead to depression and anxiety.

Still, love cannot be reduced to merely its biochemical and electrical components. Love is not tantamount to our bodily processes. Rather, it is the way we experience them. Love is how we interpret these flows and ebbs of compounds using a higher-level language. In other words, love is pure poetry.

Additional Reading
The Myth of Mental Illness

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.