You think your heart is behind romantic love? Think again…

It would be fallacious to believe that romantic love happens only in ‘love marriages'. In arranged marriages too, the whole process is geared towards creating and engendering romance. The minute a wedding is finalised and the engagement concluded, romance shyly (or sometimes, thunderously) makes an appearance. The bride and the bridegroom suddenly become the centre of everybody's attention (until the wedding day, when they are mere bystanders). It's almost as if everyone goes on a bit of a nostalgia trip, remembers their own romantic history and transmits this indescribable and exotic feeling on to the couple, who generally carried away by the occasion, tend to feel romantic about the whole thing too. If they are inherently romantic themselves, the feelings experienced are extremely strong and intense, and the whole engagement period is either wine and roses or tender coconut water and jasmine.

Exceptions

However, unfortunately, there are many of us who are completely impervious to our innate romantic streaks, and the engagement period draws out interminably and every day is like the one before and the one after. Despite being deluged by stories and imagery of romantic love by the movies, television, popular literature, massive hoardings, advertisements and, on top of everything, folklore (every region in the country has its own compendium of love legends), many of us seem to possess even less romance than a plate of boiled rice. But take it from me, even the most stoic among us is not bereft of sentiment and will certainly, given the right time and environment, experience at least a smidgeon of romantic love. For, despite what conventional wisdom says, romantic love has more to do with the head than with the heart.

One of the buzz words associated with romantic love is ‘chemistry', a term that many people find unacceptable, for they fail to see the connection between love and the chemicals that float around in one's body. But people who fall in love, even those not particularly scientifically inclined, realise that there must be some truth to this whole ‘chemistry' business, for, a lot of their responses to the loved one are physiological: sweaty palms, racing hearts, wobbly knees, flushing, blushing and a general feeling of being supercharged. A lot of psychobiological research has been undertaken over the last few decades to understand the biology behind love. You might, like many others of course, feel that medical scientists should mind their own businesses and concentrate on more important things like cancer, and let lovers get on with enjoying love, but sometimes it's nice to know what's happening inside our minds, don't you think?

Romantic love starts off with a feeling of strong attraction which is initiated by chemicals called pheromones that give rise to a distinctive odour that our brains find attractive. This is why we are attracted to some people and not to others. Depending upon our social conditioning, our value systems, our personalities and our confidence levels, which can be seen as ‘filters' in our minds, we may or may not act upon this feeling of attraction, but if the pheromones are strong enough, then our sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogens) kick in and reinforce the feeling of attraction. However, if we find that we like the person we are attracted to and think there's a possibility of a relationship, we experience not merely sexual lust, but something more — romantic love.

Chemistry of love

Romantic love is controlled by several chemicals in the brain, the most important ones being Dopamine and Norepinephrine that are responsible for the excitement of that loving feeling — the sweaty palms, hammering heart, dry mouth, flushing, speechlessness and that indescribable ‘walking on air' kind of euphoria that makes all the world love lovers, and all lovers do slightly crazy things. Romantic love brings people together, but its intensity can be searing, as result of which it may be unsustainable. This is why the chemistry seems to fade after a while of being in love, to prevent us from burning out. Fortunately, another chemical now makes its appearance to ensure we sustain our love for each other. Oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘cuddle chemical' or the ‘love chemical', is generally held responsible for nurturing behaviour. It's the same hormone that stimulates the secretion of breast milk in women and creates a nurturing mindset in them after childbirth. Men too, have oxytocin in their bodies and these, along with other chemicals like Vasopressin and Endorphins that produce a calm and tranquil state, then ensure bonding and attachment between the partners.

A lot of research is also being done on the brains of people in love. By using an investigation technique called functional MRI, researchers have been able to locate which parts of the brain get activated when individuals are shown pictures of someone they are in romantic love with as opposed to pictures of friends and attractive strangers. If you must know, the medial insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the caudate nucleus and the putamen (all singularly unromantically-named parts of the brain) seem to be actively involved in the process. And to think that you believed you were allowing your heart to rule your head when you fell in love! It's all in your head! Now, the question is, while you may have the stomach for romance, do you have the head for it?

Email the writer: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com