The warm softness of love seems like something far removed from the cold hard reality of science. Yet the two meet, either during lab tests for rising hormones or in bare rooms where MRI scans loudly and peek into the brain that lights up at the sight of their soul mates.
When it comes to thinking deeply about love, poets, philosophers, and even high school boys who dreamily gaze at girls two rows up have a significant advantage in science. But the field is running bravely to catch up.
A database of scientific publications shows more than 6,600 pages of results in a search for the word “love”. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are conducting 18 clinical trials on the subject (although, like love itself, the NIH “love” may have layered meanings, even as an acronym for a study of Crohn’s disease). Although not normally considered a bowel disease, love is often described as a disease and the wounded as lovers. Comedian George Burns once described love as something akin to back pain: “You don’t see it on X-rays, but you know it’s there.”
Richard Schwartz, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a consultant at McLean and Massachusetts General (MGH) Hospitals, says love has never been shown to make you physically ill, although it does raise cortisol levels. , a stress hormone. which has been shown to suppress immune function.
Love also activates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is known to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. He combines this with a drop in serotonin levels, which adds a hint of obsession, and you’ll have the crazy, pleasurable, stunned and urgent love of infatuation.
It’s also true, Schwartz said, that like the moon, a trigger for its legendary form of madness, love has its phases.
“It’s quite complex and we only know a little about it,” Schwartz said. “There are different stages and moods in love. The initial stage of love is very different ”from the later stages.
During the first year of love, serotonin levels gradually return to normal and the “dumb” and “obsessive” aspects of the disease decrease. This period is followed by an increase in the hormone oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with a calmer, more mature form of love. Oxytocin helps bind, strengthen immune function, and begin conferring the health benefits found in married couples, who tend to live longer, have fewer strokes and heart attacks, are less depressed, and have lower rates. higher survival rates for major surgery and cancer.
Schwartz has built a career around the study of love, hate, indifference, and other emotions that shape our complex relationships. And while science is learning more in the lab than ever, he said he’s still learned a lot more about counseling couples. His wife and sometimes collaborator Jacqueline Olds, also an associate professor of psychiatry at HMS and a consultant to McLean and MGH, agrees.