Love is a powerful emotion. It engages us on all levels, mind, soul and body. The emotional intensity of Love is undeniable, but so are the physical effects it has on a person as they go through the process of meeting someone attractive and falling head over heels in love. We all know that feeling of confusion and excitement, mixed in with some butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms and palpitating heart. All these symptoms point to the 'Biology of Love' and this week's expert, Dawn Maslar knows quite a bit about how our physiology effects our sentimentality.
To begin with, Dawn Maslar M.S. has a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Masters in Environmental Science/Biology. She's a published author with over ten years of college biology teaching experience. She is an adjunct professor at Kaplan University.
Maslar has published a book on relationships after years of study, which intially began on analysing her own attraction to the 'wrong men'. Due to this disturbing trend which she noticed in herself, she threw herself into intensive study and eventually founded the 'Science of Love'. Her ground-breaking work defines the four phases of Love. And that's what we spoke about in our exclusive interview on what science has to do with it.
--with Dawn Maslar
1. You say that 'Love at First Sight is a Trick' - can you tell us why?
The feelings of initial attraction, the sweaty palms and racing heart is caused by the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is part of your body’s fight or flight alarm system. It acts a lot like it’s more famous cousin adrenaline. That’s why you feel jumpy and nervous when you first meet someone you’re attracted too. But this feeling is not about love, its simply indicating interest.
Unfortunately, some people believe that because they felt this physical reaction of the fluttering heart and focused attention, it has to be love. They then can skip the next phase, which is the evaluation phase and jump straight into a full-blown relationship and sometimes, even marriage. That’s what Pamela Anderson did with her now ex-husband Tommy Lee. The couple married within 96 hours of meeting.
But norepinephrine doesn’t provide a happy relationship. Because its part of your alarm system, you need to keep creating stress and drama to experience that “loving feeling” associated with that initial attraction. That’s one of the reasons Pamela and Tommy had a tumultuous three-year on-again off-again relationship that included a four-month stint for Tommy in the county jail for domestic violence.
Initial attraction is just that…attraction. Its natures way of getting you closer to someone to get to know them better. But, its not love yet. Love takes more time.
2. From your research and in the Science of Love, can you talk a little about how the 5 senses affects how and if we fall in love?
Our senses do the initial evaluation when we meet someone. Our eyes, ears, nose, nerve ending in our skin and even our taste buds all register a vote. It usually starts with the eyes. The way a person looks is a huge consideration, particularly with men. Men have 25% more neurons doing the sight evaluation then women.
Next, if we like what we see, our nose kicks in. We are sensing for pheromones and Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) proteins. The MHC’s are part of our immune system and we are most attracted to people of the opposite immunity. This makes biological sense, because any children produced by the union would have a stronger immune system by getting different ones from each parent
Our hearing also plays a part. Men are more attracted to higher voices, while women are more attracted to a low deep voices. Also, our environment can have an effect. Holding a warm cup of coffee can cause you to believe that the person in front of you is warm and generous; while holding an ice coffee may have you walking away believing the other person is cold and stoic.
Finally, if all the other senses are in agreement, the last sense comes into play. Our taste buds get to decide if they are a keeper when we have that first kiss. During the kiss, you get a wealth of information including things like health.
If all our senses are in agreement, the lucky person may pass onto the next phase – dating. This is where you spend some time deciding if this person is someone you want to fall in love with.
Love is one of our strongest biological drives.
3. What is the link between Fear and Sex?
Remember the neurotransmitter of attraction in question number one? Norepinephrine is part of your fight or flight response. Therefore, your body can react to a hot guy (or girl) very much as it would a knife wielding maniac bursting into the room. In both cases you experience that rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and tunnel vision.
However, the part most people don’t tell you is that there is more to your flight or flight response then just fight or flight. There are two other opinions – feed or have sex. Mother nature has set it up so that when you feel fear you either want to run away, fight, eat something, or sleep with the person next you. That was the idea behind the old tunnel of love ride. A guy would take a girl on the ride and after she became scared, he had a better chance of …well you now know.
At first it may seem strange linking sex with fear. But, if you and your mate are hiding in a cave with a saber tooth tiger waiting for you to come out and be his dinner. It would be wise to have sex. You could be passing on your genes to another generation in case only one survives.
4. Based from your coaching on relationships - why do you think many women are 'attracted' to the wrong type of man?
Attraction to the wrong man is a painful situation. I’ve been working with women for years that have this affliction. The problem is there is not just one cause or easy fix. It usually stems from our childhood and can be different for each woman.
Some women are attracted to men they know they will not fall in love with because it keeps her safe. When we fall in love we become extremely vulnerable. Falling in love can be a scary proposition; therefore some women will avoid it.
Other women have a faulty belief system. She doesn’t realize that she is the prize. Men or males in all species are designed to compete, entice and win the attention and affection of a female. If she settles for anything less than the best man for her, it’s the wrong man.
And finally, some women like myself grow up in homes where they didn’t much love. I had an older brother with emotional problems that attracted the family’s focus. Most of the time I felt in the way. Unfortunately, that feeling became my normal. So, if a man gave me attention and love, it felt uncomfortable. I preferred an emotionally unavailable brooding man. The problem is love is one of our strongest biological drives. Therefore, when my desire for love finally became stronger than my desire to stay safe, I did the work on myself required to find love.
Poor relationship choice is an equal opportunity problem. Both men and woman can get caught in painful relationship cycles.
5. How can women today develop a healthy GPS (Guy Picking System) as you call it?
For a woman to develop a healthy GPS (Guy Picking System), this may sound cliche, but the main thing is she has to become comfortable with herself. As we move from attraction (the first phase of love) to dating (the second stage of love) research shows that important parts of our brain light up. One of the main structures that become active is the amygdala. I call this our watchman. The amygdala acts like a secret service agent scanning the environment looking for risks, then reacting by going into a protective mode.
Studies show that an individual, particularly a woman, that grew in a stressful environment tend to have a larger amygdala. This can make dating and growing to trust someone difficult. However, techniques like meditation have been found to shrink the amygdala. And, becoming more comfortable with you decreases the activation of the amygdala.
If a woman is not comfortable in the dating stage (the second stage) she can be tempted to jump into a sexual relationship which defuses the anxiety. Once a person falls in love (the third stage) the amygdala is deactivated temporarily. They will feel euphoric for a while, until the amygdala comes back on line. Then those feelings of alarm and doubt rush back in. This effect can cause some to become a serial dater, in and out of relationship every couple of years.
6. In your opinion, are men or women more likely to get caught in the cycle of poor relationship choices? Do they make different kinds of mistakes?
Poor relationship choice is an equal opportunity problem. Both men and woman can get caught in painful relationship cycles. Each is a little different, some men try to rescue woman, while women try to fix men. And, both can try to avoid intimacy by focusing on sex. And, still others can become so needy it pushes people away. However, when he or she understands love, they can break his or her cycle.
Helping people find love is what I’ve devoted that last several years of my life too. I wanted to figure out and be able to explain how love works, to assist people in finding life-long love.
When we fall in love important parts of our brain actually shut down. Structure like the amygdala and parts of our thinking brain go off line.
7. Do you think that the 'crazy in love' feeling everyone gets when they first fall for someone, is totally a biological process? Or is culture also an influence?
Great question. The feeling is completely biological. It’s all about norepinephrine. However, what we think about it has to do with our brain. That’s when factors such as culture and family influence come into play.
For example, I’ve been a biology professor for many years. One year I was asked to teach a night class. This particular class was full of very attractive firemen, who just happened to be my age. During the class I asked a question. One of the firemen that I was attracted to answered the question in a flirty manner. All of sudden I felt myself blush. The rest of the class saw it to and started to hoot “awwww.” Of course, dating a student is frown upon, so I had to cut my physical reaction off. My brain told me to stop before things heated up to much. I quickly recovered and went on with class. Because of my social influences my attraction for the firemen was doused.
Contempt is an insidious relationship killer.
8. How do couples work on staying together and keeping the romance alive once the explosive chemistry has subsided?
Another great question. That feeling we associate with love, the euphoric feeling of falling love has a time limit. Love eventually moves into a calmer emotion. We can also see a change in the neural activity.
Love moves into the thinking part of the brain, but now a couple has a choice to stay there or not. That’s where being committed comes in. When you decided you are committed to a relationship, you do things to help preserve the relationship. For example, studies have found that men in love stand a greater distance away from an “attractive other.” In a subconscious way he is lessening temptation was conveying none verbally that he is not interested.
Studies have also found that they are two main things couples in long-term happy relationship do. The first is to think highly of the other person. Contempt is an insidious relationship killer that can slowly seep in if a couple is not careful.
The other thing the happy couple does is participating new and novel activities together. In fact, the more challenging the better. Doing new things keeps the dopamine (pleasure neurotransmitter) flowing in the reward center of your brain, which is critical to maintain passion.
9. You've previously called love 'temporary insanity', why?
When we fall in love important parts of our brain actually shut down. Structure like the amygdala and parts of our thinking brain go off line. That’s why we have trouble judging a person when we fall in love. Then when the feeling wears off we look up one day an notice that he smacks his lips when he chews, and not only that its now super annoying.
Not only do parts of our brain shut down, our neurotransmitters go haywire for a while. Our serotonin (happy hormone) drops to the level of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And, our cortisol skyrockets to the level close to a panic attack. Of course our body can’t go on like this for long. Therefore we need to return to a level of relative stability (homeostasis), that’s why it’s a form of ‘temporary insanity.’
This may sound unromantic, but it all starts with lust.
10. What should we trust more, biology or emotions - how can we know that the love we are 'experiencing' will last?
I’m a biologist, so you know I’m going to say biology. But, its not just that I’m a biologist. Your biology or brain chemistry is what produces the emotions. Therefore, once you understand what’s happening to you, you can make better choices. When you understand how love works you will know what will last and what won’t.
11. Can lust then lead to true love?
This may sound unromantic, but it all starts with lust. Lust is defined as a very strong sexual desire. It’s another word for attraction. The thing about lust or desire is that it casts a large net. You can desire many people sometimes at the same time. Love comes when we investigate further and whittle our attention down to one person.
If you have any relationship/dating questions for Dawn, the 'Love Biologist' leave them in the comments below. For more on her check out her website: The Science of Love and for great advice on Love, Relationships and Dating watch her Youtube Channel: DawnMaslarTV. Or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.