Oxytocin is frequently called the "love hormone." Because of its role in orgasm, social recognition, pair bonding, and maternal behaviors, many people have been quick to assume that oxytocin is the magic ingredient in making love happen. A 2009 essay in Nature titled "Love: Neuroscience reveals all" discussed how a biochemical chain of events produces neurological patterns associated with subjective experiences described as love; the essay author, Emory University neurobiologist Larry Young, concluded: "Drugs that manipulate brain systems at whim to enhance or diminish our love for another may not be far away." However, not everyone agrees.
Helen Fisher notes that love—and its biological underpinnings—are far more complex than suggested by Young. She notes that cognitive processes and limbic reactions associated with basic emotions, as well as memories and experiences, play an important role in determining whom and how we love. In the case of a couple on the brink of divorce, for example, a quick sniff of oxytocin couldn't overcome a lifetime of conflict.
Further, Fisher believes there are three distinct brain systems governing what we think of as love: one for sex, one for romance, and one for attachment. "The sex drive enables you to seek a range of partners," she explains. "Romantic love allows you to focus mating energy. Attachment sustains that relationship as long as necessary to raise your baby." To reduce everything to oxytocin, she asserts, oversimplifies the many facets of love.
An oxytocin inhaler isn't likely to be the long-awaited foolproof love potion, after all. But don't despair. In the end, Fisher reminds us that there already is a love potion that has helped human beings in the search for a mate for millennia: alcohol. Though it, like oxytocin, has its flaws.
photo by yoruki8