On a balmy Sunday afternoon at Uhuru Park, a young man in glasses and a slender girl in a blue dress stride by. The man whispers something in the girl’s ear, her eyes widen as she giggles.
Mark and Cynthia met six months ago. Mark noticed Cynthia straight away. He didn’t ask her out for close to three weeks but kept passing her way just to glimpse the girl who had camped on his mind.
“I thought about her all the time. I couldn’t help it. And every time I wanted to ask her out, my mouth would go dry and I’d get tongue-tied. For close to three weeks, I didn’t have the nerve to ask her out.
So this particular day I walked up to her with no idea about what I was going to say. As I got within range I held out my hand and said, ‘I just couldn’t leave without saying hello.’ It worked,” he says.
Cynthia wasn’t so sure about Mark in the early days. “For one I wasn’t thinking ‘romantically’ as I was busy with my studies and everything else. Two, I thought he is good-looking but too smug for me,” she laughs.
But in the end, she gave in; how could she ignore the butterflies she felt in her stomach every time she saw him? Or that heady feeling she got whenever she got a text from him?
Now, Cynthia says she loves Mark’s sense of humour, his smile, and the way his eyes twinkle when he tells her sweet nothings.
Two weeks ago, my friend sent me a text saying she had bumped into an ex-boyfriend and got the heightened, slightly painful sensation you get when you see an ex you’re still in love with.
All these feelings – sweaty palms, increased heart rate, obsessive thoughts about the person you love – can be attributed to chemicals released in the brain when someone is in love.
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and the author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, says that there are three stages of love; lust, romantic attraction and attachment.
Different chemicals are released in each of these stages. One doesn’t necessarily fall in love in that order, though.
Lust involves craving for sex and is driven by two chemicals; testosterone and oestrogen. Testosterone, although higher in men, has been known to play a big role in the drive of women as well.
Mark and Cynthia are in the second phase of love. Dopamine is one of the chemicals released at this stage. It is linked to desire, pleasure, euphoria and addiction.
It is the chemical strengthening the association between an action that makes one happy, and the happy feeling that results from doing the action.
Love increases the level of dopamine. Dr. Frank Njenga, a psychiatrist, says that drugs of abuse, like cocaine, also increase dopamine levels in the brain reward circuits. Love is an addiction, in other words.
Norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is also released at this stage. “It is the chemical that causes the heavy breathing, sweaty palms, makes mouths go dry and sets the heart racing every time you see the person that you love,” Dr. Njenga explains.
In his article in NeuroQuantology titled The Brain In Love, Sultan Tarlaci, a neurology specialist, wrote that when in love, “the person’s own priorities change and there is a continual, compulsive desire for closeness.
Anxiety and fear are reduced, and risk-taking is made easier. A feeling of ecstatic, euphoric happiness takes over the person, and he or she is ready to die for the beloved.” So when Bruno Mars sang that “Baby I would catch a grenade for you”, he most probably meant it.
Another chemical associated with romantic love is Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), known for its essential role in the development of the nervous system.
Ever wondered why people in love are more likely to do something foolish or make illogical decisions? A part of the brain that is important to judgement shuts down when someone is in love.
This is according to research carried out by Semir Zeki, a professor of neuro-aesthetics at University College London.
Nilesh Patel, an associate professor at the department of medical physiology at the University of Nairobi, says that people in love display behaviour (when with that person or thinking about them) which they would not normally display.
“You would readily forgive or excuse behaviour in the one you love even when you’ll normally criticise the same behaviour in a different person.
Modern brain imaging methods show that a person feeling the emotion of love for another person shows deactivation of brain areas underlying negative emotions (like anger and suspicion), social judgment (what actions are appropriate or not in a particular social setting), and those areas involved in processing other people’s intentions and emotions,” says Nilesh.
In short, the brain lowers its guard. Before meeting Mark, Cynthia thought an ice-cream date at Uhuru Park on a Sunday was “very shady”. Now: “I don’t care. As long as I’m with him, I really don’t care where we meet.”
Serotonin is the chemical that brings the feeling of calm. One of the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is low levels of serotonin. A study carried out in Italy in 1990 established that serotonin levels fall in people at the first stages of love.
This explains the obsessive, intrusive thoughts about the person you love.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a stimulant that causes the release of adrenaline and dopamine. It naturally occurs in the brain but is also present in some foods such as chocolate.
Romantic love is short-lived because after two or three years, the body builds up tolerance to PEA. At this point, it can’t produce the needed amount to keep romantic love going.
If the attraction phase were to last anyway, then it would be a mad world, literally, where no one did anything but obsess about the person they love.
There are people, though, who crave the kick they get from the lust or attraction phase so that they will hop from relationship to relationship as soon as it fades.
Yvonne and Alex are both doctors and have been married for 11 years. She says that part of the reason their marriage has lasted this long is because she married someone who understands the profession, which is good grounding for raising their daughter.
Attachment is the bond that keeps couples like Yvonne and Alex together. Oxytocin and vasopressin are the two chemicals released at this stage.
Oxytocin is also released during childbirth and helps in the release of breast milk.
“It plays a big role in cementing the strong bonds between mother and child. It is also released by both sexes during orgasm and it promotes bonding when adults are intimate,” says Dr. Njenga, adding that, “the more couples participate in acts of affection like caressing, kissing or hugging, the more oxytocin is released, and the stronger the bond becomes.”
Nilesh adds, “Another interesting aspect of these two chemicals is that oxytocin drives female to male bonding while vasopressin drives male to female bonding.”
Michael* has been married for two years; before settling down, he had dated his wife for four years. Right now he is attracted to a colleague at work and is feeling confused because he’d assumed that once he found “the one”, he’d be done with all that.
But Fisher explains that it is possible to feel deep attachment for your wife or husband while you feel romantic love for someone else. These three phases of love work independently and this explains infidelity.
ROMANTIC AND MATERNAL LOVE?
I talked to Zipporah Kazi who had a baby six months ago. She says she loves both her husband and newborn but how come she doesn’t feel butterflies in her stomach when she holds her baby and yet feels that way for her husband?
Nilesh explains that research shows that except for some overlap, the brain areas (or networks) that are activated in a person experiencing romantic love are different from those of maternal love.
“Romantic love will trigger sexual feeling and behaviours while maternal love – and other relationships – will not. The pathways are different. And depending on which network is activated, the same person can cycle between different types of love,” he says.
Cynthia says she has always dated men with a sense of humour. So why do we date a particular type? Researchers say humans are conditioned by experiences and we develop a “love map” as we grow up.
This is more like a scorecard of the things you consider attractive. For Cynthia, it is humour.
You wonder about people who do crazy things in the name of love like stalking and suicide. “Human love is a complex feeling. It involves numerous chemicals forming a chemical network which, when out of balance, may result in the aberrant behaviour such as stalking or more sadly, suicide.
At present, there is strong evidence for the role of vasopressin, oxytocin, NGF and dopamine. Also specific, discrete parts of the brain being activated,” Nilesh explains.
That said, this addiction or madness that is love, is a wonderful feeling... at some point anyway.