The magical chemistry of love


Nandkumar M Kamat

Valentine’s Day is close and it’s time to create awareness about the scientific aspects of love, mate choice, romance, bonding and sex. Ethologists like Desmond Morris have written many popular books on behavior of human males and females and on almost every aspect of attraction between the opposite sexes. No teenager or young person should miss his titles (see full details here, and at least before they reach 25, study of these books needs to be completed.

Although Valentine’s Day is a post globalisation cultural phenomenon in traditional, orthodox countries like India, it is day which has full support in Indian cultural ethos due to the importance given to healthy courtship and eroticism. Sex was studied and practiced in India as an aesthetic art and rational, liberal science. Lifestyle coach of the Gupta period, Vatsyayana known globally for his popular ‘Kamasutra” with due humility names many scholars before him who had studied art and science of love, romance, courtship and sex in ancient India.

Ancient Indians had a perfect and surprisingly healthy understanding of sex and its chemistry and took a lot of care of personal hygiene, food, body odors, use of perfumes and aesthetic aspects. There is a huge body of knowledge on traditional Indian aphrodisiac or sexual stimulants. But ancient Indians didn’t know anything about chemical basis of love. They didn’t know anything about male testosterone or female estrogens, the two powerful hormones which are involved in sexual attraction.

Testosterone in males is like an aphrodisiac which increases the sex drive in males. In females it is the magic of estrogen which reaches its highest-level during ovulation and scientists know when actually “love at first sight” could happen. It happens when the males have high testosterone levels and females have high estrogen level. Therefore it is highly possible that females would tend to get more and more attracted to males at the peak of ovulation. After the stage of testosterone/estrogen mediated strong mutual attraction is over, other chemicals begin functioning leading to mate selection and bonding. These are pheneylethylamine (PEA also known as Love Molecule), norepinephrine and dopamine.

PEA causes elation and leads to bonding and consistently elevated levels of PEA means maintenance of a stronger bond between the couple in love. It has been known that falling levels of PEA causes disruption in the lives of couples which begin accusing each other of “drying of love”. But they may not know that a molecule is responsible for their quarrels and they can’t do much about it. Norepinephrine is the cause of all the excitement and the physiological changes in lovers like sweating palms, beating heart and this hormone is necessary to make the bond between lovers stronger. These two chemicals make people in love lose sleep, dream and fantasize. Dopamine is a very powerful mate selection chemical meaning people who look for their “soulmates” are actually shopping for mates of opposite sex with high dopamine level. Being attractive or unattractive is not so important as having normal dopamine levels in blood.

After mutual attraction, falling in love and bonding which chemicals help in maintaining this phase? Biochemists found oxytocin a peptide hormone as a bonding hormone which is released after ‘touching’. It is strongly involved in mother-infant bonding and breastfeeding of human babies. Oxytocin is a reassuring hormone keeping the lovers constantly connected, desiring each other and wanted. On the contrary another chemical serotonin which gives the typical “feel good feeling” can create a sense of possessiveness in either of the partner. Scientists have also estimated how long the effect of most of the love chemicals last and the period ranges from two to four years after “falling in love”.

So how do couples in love maintain their romance for longer periods? The mystery is solved by another group of small, effective molecules called endorphins. Endorphins are molecules which cause elation, sense of wellbeing and pleasure. Endorphins ensure that the effect of other “love molecules” persists beyond the initial phase of attraction, mate selection and bonding. Endorphins are essential to neutralise stress in any relationship and basically people who find themselves incapable of maintaining relationships over a longer period may be having a fundamental biochemical and genetic problem in the molecular machinery of endorphin biosynthesis.

Finally if one looks very closely at the properties of all these molecules- testosterone, estrogen, PEA, norepinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins there is structurally nothing special about them. Merely from their chemical structures their possible role in chemistry of love cannot be predicted. When considered together we know that each molecule matters at a particular stage and not at subsequent stages. Oxytocin is not required for sexual attraction. Endorphins are not essential for ‘love at first sight”. Dopamine is not required at all after mate selection is over.

If the chemical basis of love, romance and sex becomes known people would understand many relationship problems in the society, reasons for “broken hearts”, success or failure in romance or in procreational sex, male sexual inadequacy and causes of frigidity or lack of sex drive among normal healthy females. Desmond Morris entertained two generations without delving deeper in molecular aspects of love but modern biochemistry now knows the best ways to celebrate Valentine’s day- look for those ingredients which would boost the chemistry of love at right stage.