With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, here’s an article that I’ve written for the current edition of Foghorn, the journal of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation.
Love is a Drug
Here’s the headline that I recently heard for the final report in a news bulletin: Scientists Claim That Love is Just a Biochemical Reaction! Being the final news report it’s the human interest, lightweight piece that’s there to help us to forget all of the dreadful news that’s gone before. It’s an interesting headline, not least because it’s one that’s been recurring since before I was old enough to know what the word love meant, which is some considerable time ago now.
It must happen every year: Valentine’s Day is approaching and the news editors decide that it’s time to pay special attention to press releases from university departments that study the human emotion that is celebrated on that day. It’s an easy story.
The headline is interesting because of the subject of course, but it’s also interesting because of the assumptions that it implies.
Here’s a quick crash course on the subject of Love is a Drug.
When a person falls in love a chemical called phenylethylalamine is released which makes the person feel particularly good when in the presence of a particular other person. The effect of the chemical lasts for anything from a few months to a few years, but in the end it inevitably fades away. End of story. Not much mileage in that for Mills and Boom.
The good news is that when the phenylethylalamine ceases to do its work a different chemical may sometimes kick in – an endorphine – that has a much less dramatic though more long-lasting effect, provoking a general feeling of okayness rather than the preceding mania. Endorphines are sensible chemicals. If the endorphines don’t kick in, the chances are that another phenylethylalamine-induced experience will be looked for elsewhere.
At first sight it sounds as though love is a drug-induced state – but that’s looking at the whole thing the wrong way round. Our brains work by naturally secreting chemicals as messengers that jolt us into doing what we ought to do next. That’s why we are vulnerable to artificially administered chemicals that make us do things inappropriately – because we use similar chemicals in our brains anyway.
Some people baulk at the idea that love is nothing more than the result of a quick injection of chemicals in the brain. Surely such an elevated state of the human psyche must be more than that?
But why single out love for special treatment? Very few people get perturbed by the notion that certain other emotions are the result of biochemical reactions – who gets disturbed by the notion that adrenaline (aided and abetted by its macho buddy, testosterone) is responsible for aggressive behaviour for instance? No one’s bothered by the concept of “having an adrenaline hit” when riding the big dipper, but who would want to describe a romantic encounter as a phenylethylalamine hit (and not only because they can’t pronounce the word – I bet you haven’t even tried to yourself, have you?). It’s considered to be okay to have a purely biochemical high from adrenaline because the state that it invokes – one of action, alertness and aggression – is deemed to be at a basic and primal level of our experience – the purely physical level. In fact we want the state to be chemically induced, because to some extent we want to deny our own personal responsibility for the feelings that are promoted by the chemicals (especially the aggressive elements).
The fact that thereís a chemically-based dimension to the phenomenon of love seems to imply that the whole business is out of our control, but of course that isn’t the case: it doesn’t mean that the experience is totally random: that you may be walking down the street one day when you suddenly get an unexpected shot of phenylethylalamine that makes you fall head over heals for the first person that you see (so that you have to be careful which neighbourhood you walk in). The chemical comes into play when it’s appropriate. Just as adrenaline comes into play when you’re going into battle or into speeding traffic rather than when you’re feeding a baby. Think of it more as an enhancer than a dictator.
Of course, the world of romance doesn’t run smoothly, whether it’s chemically enhanced or not: everything can turn upside-down and end up pear-shaped rather than heart-shaped. This is due to the statistical law that things can go wrong in more ways than they can go right.
I have trouble enjoying romantic movies for this reason, because I can’t get out of my head the fact that although during the course of the film the smitten participants in the dance of romance will do anything to be together, I suspect that in a few yearsí time theyíd do anything to be apart. The love drug will definitely have worn off: they’ll realize that the only way they could have possibly have done what they did was because they were under the influence of a mind-altering chemical, or that they were the victims of a ludicrously unrealistic and sentimental movie plot.
As well as the word “biochemical” there’s another word in that headline that’s a bit dubious. Can you see it? It’s the word “just”.
What’s so wrong about things being “just” biochemical?
It’s all a bit reductionist. It’s getting the messengers mixed up with the message.
Imagine a headline stating that “Scientists discover that Beethoven’s symphonies are “just” a sequence of compressions in the air impacting upon the ear”. Perhaps followed by a statement along the lines that “At a scientific level, it’s been proved that Beethoven’s symphonies are the result of exactly the same physical processes that produce “The Chicken Song”. Beethoven’s symphonies are indistinguishable to The Chicken Song! It’s a scientific fact (A fact that’s no doubt endorsed by the proponents of cultural relativism, so it must be right).
There’s yet another thing that’s wrong with that headline. It’s the word “Scientists”. It should be “Journalists”. It isn’t scientists who claim that love is “just” a biochemical reaction, it’s journalists. The scientists are merely stating that there is a biochemical element to the whole phenomenon – not that it’s “just” a biochemical reaction. But as usual the scientists are dissed by the arts-graduate journos as being soulless egg-heads. No doubt the journalists justify their gross over-simplification and blatant distortion of the truth by saying that they are making the story accessible and interesting to the public, on the grounds that it’s better that the people in their audience know something that’s wrong than that they know nothing at all.