In February, every media outlet in the U.S. focuses at least part of their attention on love, a nice change from murder, politics and war. Time Magazine chose to discuss the scientific aspects of romance, and, yes, it was interesting. It was, however, nothing new to any romance writer or reader.
According to Time, Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University says, “People live for love, die for love, kill for love. It can be stronger than the drive to stay alive.” Well, duh! Why do they think over 51 million people read romance novels every year? Because falling in love is one of the most intense experiences a human being can have and these books allow us to experience it over and over again, even once we are married and happily settled into what Time calls “companionate love”. (That’s the emotion which allows us to unselfishly raise our children together.)
Some of the most cherished conventions of romance have a solid basis in scientific fact. For instance, our heroes are often broad-shouldered and deep-voiced. Our heroines frequently have well-curved figures. Scientists have proven these traits are highly attractive to a member of the opposite sex who’s interested in a viable mate. In the male, a substantial chest and shoulders indicates the ability to bring home the bacon, literally. The deep voice promises lots of testosterone for good reproduction. For women, ample hips mean easy birthing while a healthy bust-line shows the ability to nurse off-spring.
And kissing! Ah, kissing! It serves so many Darwinian purposes. Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York says, “At the moment of a kiss, there’s a rich exchange of postural, physical and chemical information. There are hardwired mechanisms to process all this.”
Smell, for instance, is integral to sexual attraction. Getting close enough to kiss magnifies your potential mate’s fragrance. I always describe my hero’s distinctive scent. Sometimes it’s just clean and male and sometimes it holds hints of the soap he uses; it depends on the character.
Scientifically, the nose picks up a lot of information. We’ve all heard of pheromones, of course, those scent signals that a female is interested and fertile. However, there’s an even more complicated process going on here: the processing of MHC, or “major histocompatibility complex”, which influences tissue rejection. If two people’s MHC is too similar it increases the likelihood of miscarriage. While MHC can be judged by inhaling, an even better test is tasting: saliva contains the same compound. So a passionate kiss allows you to both enjoy your lover’s arousing scent and to analyze his or her immune system.
Of course romance writers know that kissing often leads to more intimate contact. There’s a scientific reason for this as well: men’s saliva contains testosterone which is a natural aphrodisiac for women. And you thought a kiss was just a kiss.
Why is love so intense, so obsession-inducing? It turns out that love activates not one, not two, but three areas of the brain, stimulating them to produce some very rewarding chemicals. Dopamine incites craving, motivation and ecstasy. Oxytocin induces an overwhelming sense of connection with the person who’s around when it’s flooding through the brain. To give you an idea of how very powerful oxytocin is, this chemical creates the mother-baby bond. The comfort of serotonin adds to the romantic’s sense of well-being. To cement love, twin parts of the brain called the caudate nuclei light up. These brain structures are where patterns and mundane repetitive skills such as driving a car are stored. So our lover becomes an addictive, ecstatic habit.
Of course, eventually this early thrill settles into something more stable and less distracting so we can raise our histologically compatible off-spring together. “You’ve got to make a transition to a stabler state,” says psychologist Barry McCarthy. That’s why we writers put our lovers through some major conflicts: to make sure their relationship is based on something more than a few addictive chemical reactions. We believe in the reality of “happily ever after”, and we need to show that our characters love each other for an even more complex set of reasons than the scientists posit. Broad shoulders, narrow waists and MHCs aside, our lovers seek sparkling conversation, shared values, and an ability to see each other through the tough situations in life when kissing isn’t an option.
However, it’s nice to know that science has finally caught up to the romance genre.
All scientific information and quotations in this article are drawn from “Why We Love”, Time Magazine, February 2008.