The chemistry of Cupid

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There will be more than a few bottles of French Champagne, red satin-wrapped chocolates, and badly written poems circulating between men and women tomorrow in honor of Cupid’s dart to the heart delivered on Valentines Day. Whether your approach is met with unbridled passion or a casual voice message, rest assured: It’s not you. It’s your phenylethylamine. 

Your pulse goes up. Your pupils dilate. Your tidal volume increases with every breath. Your skin conductance levels go sky high. That means you sweat. You are extremely happy; joyful even, and you haven’t eaten anything in days. Well, O.K., hours. And you are not hungry. Nor can you concentrate on anything other than your blissful romantic relationship. Isn’t love wonderful? 

Your autonomic nervous system is responding the way it has since the beginning of time to some rather primal cues that accompany romantic love. When cupid goes hunting, watch out. It can get crazy. 

Psychiatrist Dr. Donatella Marazziti, researching at the University of Pisa, Italy, compared hormonal changes accompanying obsessive-compulsive disorder with that of romantic love. Ranking subjects on a PLS, passionate love scale, of course, she found that both romantic love and obsessive-compulsive patients exhibited reduced seratonin levels circulating in the blood. Marazziti also found that testosterone levels increased in women during romantic love periods, but reduced in men, resulting in the kinder, gentler manner of XYs experiencing romantic love.  

Brain activity in the early stages of romantic love activates areas similar to those stimulated during addiction, obsessive-compulsive, and mentally unstable behaviors, but that activity is fleeting. Just one to two years later, if the relationship survives, that activity drops off the cliff. Then what?

The “cuddle” hormone oxytocin, and the hormone vasopressin, have been found to team up, forming emotional super glue that encourages couples to continue to bond, inspiring feelings of love, connection and attachment. Vasopressin assists the process in males, with an additional male component in a few select men, a sort of bonding gene, known as the AVPR1A gene. Additionally, couples that kiss show elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which also acts to increase that bonding oxytocin.

What initially draws us to one facial type, body type, coloring, personality, or voice, drives deep into the need to produce the healthiest, strongest, smartest offspring possible. Take, for instance, individual scent. Not the $100 a bottle kind, but your own personal scent. Olfactory receptors are designed to ferret out a preferred scent to attract two individuals with traits that are complementary, resulting in the most viable offspring.

Enter pheromones and the t-shirt tests. One study asked men to wear t-shirts for a couple of nights, then delivered them, unwashed, back to the study for women to sniff and choose. Based on scent only, women chose shirts worn by men that complemented their own body makeup, emphasizing nature’s role in helping us to find suitable genetic matches via olfactory sorting.

Turning the tables, another study asked women to wear shirts for a couple of nights, again returning them to the lab and the waiting men. Half of the women were on contraceptives and half were not. The results found that men more frequently chose shirts worn by women who were ovulating over those who were not.

Today, we frequently abandon our deeply-rooted sensitivities in favor of spike heels, cool jeans, exotic cars and high salaries, as well as artificial fragrances. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Regardless, if the right cues are present, we will fall, completely and totally, into romantic love, flooding our bodies with that exotic cocktail of hormones.

As unique and unusual gifts are exchanged between couples this Valentines Day in the name of romance, it is unlikely that any chocolate boxes will be flavored with phenylethylamine, dopamine, or norepinephrine. It is also unlikely that oysters, strawberries, or powdered rhino horn will work magic on the heartthrob of your dreams.

My own personal experience says that what really works is a little something extra between the ears. Barring that, you can always take your chances with adornment based in the periodic table of elements: Ag, Au, Pt or C. That would be silver, gold, platinum, or carbon, the latter preferably released from tons of pressure over the last millennium or so. May your pulse race and your pupils dilate this Valentines Day, and may your oxytocin always see you through!

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.