Love: More than Just a Chemical Reaction?

Love FireLove. What is it?

Well in this instance it is a subject of study for biological anthropologists, who look at evolution and the chemical things that happen in our brains in given circumstances, among other things. Oddly enough, according to this article at Brain Pickings, it appears that contra the notion that we are just bodies with no soul or souls that pilot meaningless bodies, our Christian notion that we are a composite of body and soul that have an effect on one another seems to make sense…

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talkDr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love. …

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

What was it Christ said about spewing the lukewarm from his mouth? He’d rather you be hot or cold, let your yes mean yes and no mean no, etc.

“Romantic love” isn’t exactly what we’re supposed to bring to the table in our relationship with God, but the part about obsessive thinking tracks with “pray unceasingly” if you consider prayer to be the lifting of the mind and heart to God; an effort to converse with God interiorly in all situations about all things. If we get good at this and really dedicate ourselves to it we probably will develop an affinity for God.

The money quotes comes toward the end. First:

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives.

How true. If we dull our ability to feel sadness we have also dulled our ability to feel happiness. If we cannot fall into despair we cannot cling to hope. If we cannot choose to harm ourselves we cannot choose to help ourselves. Life is lived amidst that balancing act, that constant stream of choices for the good or for less-good or even evil options or chances. If it is impossible to fall then it is impossible to rise.

This is true philosophically and spiritually, now we know it is true physiologically. We are enfleshed souls, so, of course.

Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?


In the end, love does not quite fit the categories of biology and anthropology and it does not make perfect sense when looked at as mere chemical processes. “The heart has reasons that the reason cannot grasp.” Love “is not a tame lion,” you might say. Of course not, because it is the self-diffusive, life-giving, devoted, ecstatic life of God experienced on earth. No scan or test tube can hope to test and explain that.


Categories:Marriage Theology

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  • clarisa

    love is soomthing soomone needs to respect .

  • Alice Roddy

    love, noun, a feeling.
    Feelings are notorious for being impossible to command.
    love, verb, committing oneself to something or someone.
    This can be willed.
    Not understanding the difference causes a world of pain.

  • JackB

    How is love distinguished from lust? Is love good and lust bad?

    Lust is defined as pleasure and delight. Don’t seem too bad. While love is a strong attraction based on sexual desire. Sounds like a dead-heat to me.

    Pope John II in his encyclical a number of years ago, said a husband cannot lust after his wife, even if she is making overtures toward him. Sounds like a Papal error. Once again smack in the middle of the bedroom.

    If you love your spouse why is it wrong to lust after them? I feel that love can be saved by lust.

    • Tom Crowe

      JackB — Your definition of love is more than a little flawed. Love necessarily includes a tender care for the other, a desire for the good of the other. It is so much more than attraction based on sexual desire. To reduce it to that simple definition is to reduce it to, well, lust. Lust, on the other hand, is an inordinate desire for sexual gratification. It does not care about the humanity of the other, its only focus is satisfaction of one’s own appetite. It is wrong to lust after your spouse because in so doing you see your spouse as an object of your own sexual pursuits, while your spouse should be a partner in all things including sex and the marital act should be a give and receive, in which the husband and wife communicate with one another and seek each other’s good. Love can, at times, mean abstaining from sex and suppressing a deep desire for it if your wife is ill or seriously not in the mood. For the lover that suppression would be easier because the needs and desires and health of the beloved are extraordinarily important. But for the merely lustful, such suppression would cause resentment and quite likely seeking another outlet to get satisfaction. If you think love can be saved by lust then you have no idea what love is.

  • John

    There is much wisdom here, but the glib dismissal of the “despair” in which the seriously depressed or anxious live is disappointing. Sometimes, antidepressants are a vital bridge to a normal life for those who suffer from these maladies. A more nuanced, or, perhaps, I should say a balanced, view would have been appreciated.

    • Tom Crowe

      John– Did you read the article I got this from? They stipulate that sometimes the anti-depressants may be necessary for those who are seriously depressed to the point of hurting themselves and others. Cheers.

  • ronald eck

    Love is a channel in life that sways in the balance and can well be deceitful, a fabricated element within the source of the process on virtue, truth, or treachery. It is an inner assumption that one feels to be truthful, and substantial , but in some cases, false and for boding. It can manipulate and enchain the mortal mind…with the baptism of love, and also, breach the code of true desire to be as one.



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