Something I wrote a long time ago about love, sex and attraction. Given the complete dominance of my own brain with Covid-19 I thought this may provide some light relief to anyone else like me.
Sexual attraction is – well it’s the source of life and so worth understanding. Eminent biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has conducted numerous fascinating experiments on sexual attraction. Whereas previous research tended to clump all aspects of sexual behaviour together, Fisher found that there are three distinct, although at times overlapping, neurological pathways in the brain which relate to attraction. These fall under the categories of:
- Sexual motivation
- Courtship behaviour or romantic love
Sex comes with rewards that heighten the desire, but there are other important biological factors. On the most basic level, the hormones testosterone and oestrogen are the fuel behind the drive to have sex in the first stage. A women’s sex drive is more multifarious, but a man’s sexual urges are directly related to the levels of testosterone in his system. However, there is also more complex neurochemistry at work as we move into the second stage.
Beyond the chemical reaction, stage two of attraction is characterized by particular actions that are the same in mammals as humans. Fisher’s research shows how this stage involves a series of intense behaviours, such as more highly focused attention, increased levels of energy, obsessive following of a partner, possessive ‘mate guarding’ and the motivation to fight any competition for the preferred mate. It is also accompanied by idealization in which we exaggerate our mate’s positive attributes and overlook their flaws. This in turns fuels the unreal ecstasy of falling in love.
This doesn’t mean that the second stage unfolds with natural ease. Fisher found evidence that when a relationship isn’t going smoothly, the lover has equally strong emotions of despair and desperation. Both positive and negative feelings combine to potent effect and prevent rational thinking. The mind is swamped by chemicals from the survival-driven brain that manifest in the form of emotions and intrusive thoughts. People often say that they can’t think straight when they are in love. They only want to talk about their new relationship because they are literally obsessed. Fisher’s research shows that the level of excitation in the brain during stage two is even more powerful than the initial sex.
Whereas the sex drive can be redirected towards another partner, stage two often involves a rollercoaster of emotions that stems from its singular focus. The hint or possibility of rejection can even add a certain frisson. The idea of playing hard to get, which is related to this stage of sexual attraction, actually has some scientific foundation. Barriers to attaining a love interest have been shown to increase the level of passion in the lover. Fisher calls this ‘frustration attraction’. However, when it is going really badly, a rejected lover’s emotions can feel unmanageably extreme. At its worst, the pain of rejection can cause someone to fall into a clinical depression, to stalk their love interest, commit suicide or even commit homicide.
The romantic phase is an intense but short-lived stage of sexual attraction that typically lasts between 12 and 18 months. Many people feel desperately disappointed that their relationship has ‘lost its spark’ around this point. Often, they will move from one relationship to the next, feeling unhappy because they are chasing an idealistic notion of relationships: the belief that the passion will naturally continue forever if they find their soulmate. In reality, the chemical interactions in the brain do change. We simply don’t remain in the same heightened frenzy of passion over longer periods of time. This is most probably one of the reasons why some people commit adultery: they may still love their partner, but they are in effect seeking the pleasure of stage one and stage two of attraction.
For our ancestors, this short period of intense attraction made sense. The chief purpose of existence was reproduction: perpetuating the species and sticking around long enough to protect offspring in the first few months of life. However, we live far longer than our ancestors and our expectations of life are arguably more complex.
But interestingly, Dr Bianca Acevedo, a psychologist and expert in interpersonal relationships, carried out a neurological study with Dr Arthur Aron that showed that couples who experience long-term romantic love exhibit activity in the same regions of the brain as those who have just fallen in love. These areas are the ‘dopamine-rich brain regions associated with reward, motivation and “wanting”’. Unlike new couples, however, the fear regions had become deactivated. They found that the intense and engaged relationships that resulted went far beyond the typical biological parameters of 12 – 18 months of being ‘in love’. Dr Aron examined the habits, proclivities and attitudes of such couples in order to formulate advice for the rest of us about how to manage attraction in our long-term relationships. Picking a good match in the first place is perhaps a no-brainer. But having regular sex, encouraging your partner’s skills and interests, accentuating the positive and having fun together are all ways of releasing pleasurable hits of dopamine that keep a relationship bonded. This all needs to be cultivated rather than left to chance, but it is surely worth the effort. After all, isn’t a happy, sexy and meaningful romantic relationship one of the greatest sources of joy in life?