Mar 22, 2009

The Evolution of Love

Socionics founder Aushra Augusta was not an expert on matters of love and romance, despite having written a paper titled "The Nature of Erotic Feelings." She wrote of her own type, ILE, as basically a helpless victim of love, and the system she engendered was intended to explain how love would develop between two people independently of their intentions or efforts. While some hard-nosed determinism provides a much-needed counterbalance to the popular view that "you can make it work with nearly anyone if you just try," the extreme determined-from-the-cradle view is ultimately just as incorrect as its antipode. 


Augusta's view of romantic feelings was characteristically one-dimensional and idealized. She focused, in essence, on only psychological intimacy -- just one aspect of the romantic experience. She discussed how well types in different intertype relations were able to satisfy each other's deep psychological yearnings. Certainly, psychological intimacy is an important aspect of relationships, but it is not the only one. Let's take a broader, evolutionary look at the phenomenon of love and see what we can learn about it beyond the framework of socionics. 

Helen Fisher is a well-known anthropologist who has been studying the phenomenon of romantic love for many years and has written a number of books about her findings. She divides love into three stages or components: the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. Here's an excerpt about them:

Humans have evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction, according to Fisher — sex drive, romantic love, and attachment.

She believes that the sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to look at a whole range of partners. Romantic love — the obsessive fascination and elation associated with the early part of a relationship — developed to enable a person to focus mating energy on one partner at a time, thereby conserving time and energy.

Attachment, or the feeling of comfort and security that develops in long-term relationships, evolved to enable an individual to tolerate that person long enough to rear a child together, as a team, according to Fisher.

Fisher is not convinced that romantic love is evolutionarily designed to last forever. Once a couple was expecting a child, it would've been much more adaptive to move into the attachment phase, to raise children in a more calm, stable, rational state, Fisher says. Romantic love is not rational, it's an enormous energy expenditure that is metabolically expensive. You're walking all night, talking till dawn — we'd all die of sexual exhaustion, if romantic love lasted continually.


I'm inclined to agree with Fisher's division of love. Different hormones and different brain states have been found that are associated with each of these stages, or components of love. For instance, oxytocin in women or vasopressin in men is released after making love and contributes to feelings of emotional attachment to one's sexual partner. 

Now let's examine the three kinds of love more thoroughly. Importantly, Fisher states that things do not always start with a sexual attraction. A relationship can start off with a kind of friendly attachment and progress to the other stages. Or, one can experience a lengthy period of romantic love with no sexual consummation. I think most adults have had experience with relationships that started in different ways. For convenience we'll describe things in the order Fisher has given.

1. First, the sex drive motivates one to look at a range of partners. Anyone who looks and acts like a good bundle of genes is attractive. Quirky individual preferences also begin to play a role, such as particular kinds of look, facial or body features, mannerisms, and expressions. These tastes can evolve over time. Some "objects" appear immediately attractive, while others become attractive with time. Likewise, objects can lose their attractiveness if other traits are discovered that diminish the person's positive qualities. 

Generally, a person is not either "attractive" or "unattractive," but somewhere along a continuum between the two. Often, conditions are attached to the effect of, "I could sleep with him/her if..." This is where the crude Russian expression "she'll be good enough for me if I have some beer" comes from. 

The more time people are given to observe an "object," the more -- I think -- their individual personality preferences affect perceived attractiveness. For instance, signs of a sharp temper may appear to be a character defect to one observer, making that person lose his attractiveness, while the same sharp temper may appear to be a positive sign of passion and vitality to another observer, increasing the attractiveness of that person. So, at some stage in the evaluation of sexual attractiveness, personality traits are factored into the equation. Already, people are subconsciously estimating how well they will mesh with the other person in terms of tastes, values, interests, beliefs and allegiances, etc. 

If a person is more focused on sex itself than love, however, the calculations may be different -- less focused on personality qualities, for instance, and more on the actual mating ritual and how well it is progressing. Many species -- and I think this clearly includes humans -- have a number of mating strategies ever present in the population. One such strategy is promiscuity -- actively pursuing and preferring short-term sexual encounters, presumably with the expectation that the child will be reared by others. This strategy provides dividends as long as a large majority of the population pursues a longer-term mating strategy and can be counted on to help with child rearing. If nearly everyone were promiscuous, however, a couple that happened to be faithful and oriented toward the long term would reap the dividends of being much better able to provide for their young, thanks to teamwork. 

2. Through superficial interaction with prospective partners, the individual begins to focus energy on a single object, which expresses itself as romantic love, or infatuation. One's choice appears to be the result of subconscious calculations -- basically, how genetically desirable each "object" is, multipled by an estimate of one's chances of acquiring each of them. Inexperienced lovers often incorrectly assess their chances, leading to premature or misplaced infatuation and more frequent rejection, while more seasoned lovers are able to make more accurate predictions of whom they will actually be able to seduce and hold on to, and hence enjoy better luck. This skill is not necessarily a function of age, but more of positive programming through successful love experiences, good role models, and hands-on experience. 

Romantic love is a goal-oriented state directed towards acquiring a single person and being as close to them as possible (to crowd out any competitors and ensure that the person becomes attached to you). It is a state of constant anticipation. If the goal is placed tantalizingly in front of you but never quite achieved, romantic love can rage on for quite a long time, as long as the object still seems to be attainable. If, instead, the object is acquired swiftly and in its entirety, romantic love can actually quickly subside to a more manageable level, as the body understands that the object is now "in the bag," and the person can safely direct its energies towards more productive things, such as building a roof over the couple's head that doesn't leak, or otherwise preparing for their future together. Romantic love ultimately lays the groundwork for building an environment where offspring have a good chance of survival. 

3. Once the object of love is securely "in the bag" and one's longings for emotional oneness have been satisfied, romantic love subsides, and the couple's attention turns to more pragmatic tasks.  Since our complex brains are so big and take years to grow and develop after birth, child rearing requires years of sustained effort. A lengthy period of cooperation between parents is one of the things that best ensures childrens' survival. Another is close cooperation with other people in the community -- particularly those of one's own gender -- to procure food, ensure defense, and divide chores. What mechanism motivates a couple to stick together at this point, especially given the sex drive's inclination to notice a multitude of other potential partners around? Feelings of emotional attachment, a sense of security and dependability.

Just as subconscious calculations underlie our brain's "choice" to start the mechanism of romantic love rolling, I believe calculations are at work in deciding to stay with a long-term partner or break things off. Things like proof of effective teamwork, sufficient and pleasurable sex, shared experience, and especially the presence of children tip the odds in favor of staying together, while difficulties working together, sexual problems, and a lack of shared experiences can tip the odds towards breaking up. Of course, if other prospects appear on the horizon, that will influence the equation as well. One has to weigh the costs and benefits of staying together versus moving on. 

Purely material interests play a considerable role as well -- in some cases, the defining role. The prospect of losing property or financial security in the event of a breakup keeps some couples together who might separate in other circumstances. If children are involved, all the more so. Rather than fester under these conditions, our brains actually adapt to them, and our attitudes to our partners change as the result of material considerations. If a person is providing important material benefits, most likely their partner will be more patient and forgiving with them -- to a point, of course. 

Perhaps a good deal of the "calculations" taking place is nothing more than the buildup of certain chemicals in the area of the brain dedicated to that relationship or person. Maybe that sounds naive. However, if each orgasm together releases a hormone related to feelings of attachment, maybe other positive experiences do as well. Presumably, those hormones would have a cumulative effect resulting in an overall attitude towards the relationship, sort of like a long string of "+1" and "-1" that adds up to a final positive or a negative number. In addition, the newer "pluses" and "minuses" have greater weight attached; a great orgasm, successful cooperation on a project, or an expensive new piece of jewelry can temporarily outweigh a previous string of minuses -- at least until its effects fade, too, with the passing of time. In effect, each partner seems to keep tabs on both the relationship as a whole and the current development of the relationship. Could that "tally count" be expressed as a buildup of a certain hormone in an area of the brain? I don't know.

While it may seem that feelings of romantic love in a long-term relationship are destined to inexorably fade away into a low-level "attachment" or communal living habit, all is not lost, says Fisher:

Fisher cited the studies of Elaine Hatfield, who found that people in good, long-term relationships reported not only a deep sense of attachment to their partners, but also low-grade feelings of romantic love. This emotion comes back, at various times when a couple is on vacation, before or after they make love, even when one partner says something funny.

According to Fisher, there are two keys to making love last.

First, couples need to do new things together — novelty and variety has been shown to drive up the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine, both chemicals that are associated with feelings of romantic love. Go swimming after dark, go to a different restaurant for dinner, says Fisher. Even the smallest change of pace can reignite passion.

Second, and more obviously, according to Fisher, it's important to pick the right person from the get-go. The chemistry between two people is what causes the feeling of romantic love in the first place, and helps to keep it percolating.


"Low-grade feelings of romantic love," I guess, are a nice treat from nature to allow us to "live happily ever after." The end.

Further reading
Love and Relationships "knol" - learn all about the different chemicals involved in love, and research relating to love and attraction. Try not to get depressed upon reading it. 

3 comments:

Aleesha said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I don't think the role of hormones and neurotransmitters in love is depressing -- I don't think it makes love and attraction any less "real" and good to those experiencing it and I am personally determined to make the most of what my body has to offer in this regard. ^_^

(that probably sounded more sexual than intended :\ but I don't know how to say it better)

The idea of humans as more biological than "spiritual" creatures only increases their magnificence in my mind -- that there can be organs and mechanisms that produce such complex and compelling mental experiences is really magical, and comforting that we do all this ourselves without the meddling of some nebulous creature with control issues.

Rick said...

Well said :)

Jeranimo said...

Hmm ...Unless Fisher is predicting that we have some gigantic war and eradicate over 90% of the global population, love is probably the only thing that will keep us together, surviving and co-existing peacefully. Sexuality was crucial up until roughly 50 years ago, when our population hit 3 billion. I may be wrong, but I think there's quite enough people for now and that the population could even afford to decrease (in the long run-- I'm not an advocate of genocide or anything). At least in Canada and the United States, we're a society of overweight, overnourished hermits obsessed with physical conquest and self-identification. What's more perfect, as a solution, than romantic love?? Love is literally the only thing that will overpower the ego, redistribute the wealth, and shed that extra 200 pounds. And a monogamous relationship (attachment) theoretically provides a strong regenerative resource to tap in an increasingly competitive and overpopulated environment. Speaking directly to these economic conditions, romantic love provides the motivation to overcome adversity and make peace with poverty, as it can survive in even the poorest of economic states.

Now, this is possibly my quadra values attempting to speak up over surpressed information elements, but isn't it a little pointless to endless pursue the scientific details without giving thought to the present and how to use what we already know? That's a fairly vague question, but what I'm trying to ask is: who cares if this chemical cocktail we call our brain might evolve? I agree that it's wonderful how complex our biology is, but I don't agree it's possible to understand every little detail and figure out life before you've lived it-- intelligence (science) is best when it goes hand-in-hand with wisdom (experience). It seems to me like no one cares about how to be happy and be free. You're not going to find that answer in a textbook or a chemical or a transmitter-- yet. Good, old-fashioned trial and error, social interaction and conversation will tell you in days what science might describe in decades. Life is too short to spend too much time dissecting it, right?? :)