Romance Is a Great Painkiller

No wonder we get addicted to romance. It's a natural painkiller.

Arthur Aron, a SUNY Stonybrook neuroscientist who studies love, and Sean Mackey, the chief of Stanford University School of Medicine's pain management center teamed up on a study that found that both love and pain activate the same brain circuits.

Students in love felt less pain while staring at a picture of their significant others. In addition, love acted through the same brain pathway as several strong painkillers and addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

It's important to note that these were college students who had been "passionately in love" for less than nine months, so they were definitely in the romantic, dopamine-fueled state, not the oxytocin-supported committed love state.

BTW, London's Daily Express has a bit more on this, as well as other ways that love and relationship make us healthier and happier.

Romantic Chemistry May be Genetic

A fascinating study shows that folks who have a special kind of dopamine receptor tend to become friends. In this case, it's DRD2, a gene sequence involved in producing a dopamine receptor, which is a marker for alcoholism. (Dopamine is the brain chemical of reward-seeking and reward; it's involved in addiction to substances, thrill-seeking and romance.)

In the article in Medical News Today, James H. Fowler, of the division of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego explains:

"We live in a sea of genes. What happens to us may not depend only on our genes but on the genes of our friends. This might be the first step towards understanding the biology of 'chemistry,' the feeling you have of you whether you like or dislike a person [almost immediately]. We might choose friends not [only] because of social features we consciously notice but because of biological and even genetic features that we unconsciously notice. "

He talks about the relationship between genes and behavior, and how this may cause us to bond with people like us. And he also discusses his findings that in some cases, people with a genetic marker for openness tend to flock with their opposites.

The Connection Continuum

I've officially nominated oxytocin as the God Molecule. If you look at our capacity for connection on a continuum, it can go from the womb, where we are connected to our birth mother, out and upward to the spiritual connection we may feel with things greater than ourselves.

I've described oxytocin's role along the Connection Continuum in an article for Vision magazine called A New Look at Orgasm. Please check it out.



What Women Want

What do women want? Men may be surprised to know that it's difficult for us to figure that out ourselves, let alone express it to you.

It's easy for women to work on making themselves someone a man will want, but our own desires can get buried under all the accoutrements.

I took part in a discussion of this led by Nicole Daedone, founder of OneTaste. Here's a short video that distills the essence.


Vampires, Angels and Oxytocin

I woke up thinking about Glory, Devin O'Branagan's book in the vampire genre.I realized that there's an oxytocin story here.

O'Branagan creates a world with an even more complex set of races than Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.

 Twilight's Bella has to choose between Jacob the werewolf and Edward the vampire -- and that's no decision at all. As she tells Jacob in the firs tmovie, "Don't make me choose, because it will always be him."

In Glory, Glory, the heroine, finds out that there are all sorts of races living with humans, sometimes helping, sometimes fighting, sometimes ignoring them. Glory is torn between two romantic interests, Zane, a vampire, and Dominic, an angel. She's deeply moved by and attracted to both of them in different ways.

(For more about the psychology of vampire love, read Fangs, Blood and Romance -- Oh My!)

Glory has an intense attraction to each of them. With Zane, it's  blood-boiling lust. When he touches her or kisses her, her whole body ignites. With Dominic, she seems to sink into a blissful sense of union with , feeling deeply connected.

That sounds like testosterone vs oxytocin to me. Vampire Zane, who is also a cowboy, incites testosterone-fueled lust, while angelic Dominic evokes the release of calmly connecting oxytocin.

While Twilight's Jacob is very sweet and Edward is super-sexy, I can also see the oxytocin/testosterone contrast in them. Especially in the movies, Jacob has the superb muscles of a high-testosterone, alpha male. Edward, on the other hand, exhibits more oxytocin traits: He is sweet to Bella, is part of a family and community that is close and bonded, and he advocates for peace among all beings. (He's also more "pretty," especially when he sparkles.)

So, it's very clear why, for Bella, "It will always be Edward." And it's clear to me whom Glory should choose.

Nature seems to have intended that hot lust to get us over our fear of strangers and cause us to have lots of sex. But that sex is supposed to release oxytocin, which creates a deep and long-lasting bond -- long-lasting enough to keep us together when lust inevitably fades.

Glory should choose Domenic. I'd bet that in the final installment of the Glory saga, Zane will sacrifice himself to save Glory. Is there a future for human Glory and angelic Dominic? Who knows?


Oxytocin May Be as Strong in Polyamory as in Monogamy

54718701_9ab871dcc5 This research is a couple of years old, but it really struck me.

You may have heard of the naked mole rat, a weird little beast that can eat a lot of worms really fast. Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) live in colonies with a single breeding queen, much like bees do. Many of the non-breeding individuals care cooperatively for the young.

According to Lisa Conti in Miller-McCune, Nancy Forger of the University of Massachusetts found that there were lots of oxytocin receptors in the rats' nucleus accumbens, which is considered the pleasure center in mammals -- including humans.

Researchers think that this distribution contributes to social monogamy (as opposed to strict sexual monogamy), for example, in the famously monogamous prairie voles. The idea is, the pleasure of sex is tied to the individual mate, creating a bond and a state in the brain that looks very similar to addiction.

So, if the mole rats are equally bonded to the group, it seems like this could illuminate the basis of a similar bond in a polyamorous family.

photo: Riude (Juhan Ristolainen)

Connection, Loss, Science and Mothering (Poem)

My friend Alan Phillips has written a poem that intertwines many of the things this blog is about -- love and attachment, labor and birth, mothering, oxytocin, connection.

It's a wonderful poem, and extra wonderful to me because it lets me see all these ideas and scientific studies in a different light.

Please check it out: Legend of My Birth.

Humans: Bonobos or Prairie Voles?

My new Facebook friend, Tinamarie Bernard Eshel, writes about sex, spirituality, and earth stewardship.

On the blog Green Prophet, she recently wrote Monkey Love: When females rule fornication, Mother Earth delights. It's a terrific and thought-provoking post, and you should read it.

Her thesis:

The bonobos have found the solution to world peace. It’s called love. Whenever there is a dispute, they resolve it with a good bout of nooky. A bit of masturbation here, a little tickle where it feels really good there, and soon enough the tension is relieved. Have a problem? Not after you’ve had sex, bonobo style.

And if you have any doubt about female satisfaction, rest assured that these apes know how to swing. Wink wink, nod nod, grunt grunt, sigh. In fact, in their natural habitats, Bonobos have rarely demonstrated hostile or violent behaviors towards another.

I began to comment on her blog, and decided instead to post it here.

I completely agree with Tinamarie that you can't have too much sex. Sex is the emotional glue that holds couples together, and it satisfies our physical and emotional cravings for connection while tuning up our bodies for maximum health.

That said, even though we share 97 percent of our dna with the bonobo, this does not mean that we are like them socially. Biologists estimate that approximately 3 percent of mammals are monogamous, and they seem to share a quirk of brain structure that places receptors for both dopamine, the neurochemical of reward-seeking and reward, close to receptors for oxytocin, the neurochemical of attachment, trust, generosity and love, in the parts of the brain that handle social interactions.

This difference makes the prairie vole monogamous, even though it is genetically very close to its polyamorous cousin, the mountain vole. Humans do seem to share this monogamous brain structure.

This does NOT mean that humans or any other monogamous mammal is wired to copulate ONLY with one mate. In fact, they've found that as many as 45 percent of "monogamous" male prairie voles never mate, while in monogamous bird species, some 25 percent of offspring are the result of extra-pair copulation.

We seem to be wired to live in a stable family with a long-term, and possibly life-long, mate, with the possibility of other sexual partners for both sexes. Unfortunately, in our highly civilized culture, we have robust social conventions for romance, friendship and property rights that make it quite difficult to be as free as the bonobos.

I think where the ideals of polyamory may lead us astray is when we focus on the amory part and forget about creating a stable mate relationship. I firmly believe that this mate/family structure may take many forms outside of the traditional nuclear family -- in fact, I think it should.

However, without a home and family to come home to, the polyamorist risks falling into a tangle of unsatisfying relationships that may provide lots of dopamine highs without the next of trust and connection that comes from oxytocin.

I think women can be especially at risk in a polyamorous playground, because our higher estrogen causes us to respond more strongly to oxytocin, making sex feel more bonding to us. 

All that said, sex -- no matter who or how many we enjoy it with -- does make us calmer, less anxious and more open and trusting. That's got to be good for the planet.

Is He a Cheater?

Paul Zak, the guy who showed that oxytocin affects all sorts of positive human emotions, as well inventing the field of neuroeconomics, posted five tests you can use to discover whether a man is likely to stay faithful.

The tests illuminate the relationship between oxytocin, vasopressin and testosterone. If that recipe isn't just right, a man's more likely to be a seed-scatterer than a bacon-bringing-homer.

They're smart, science-based, and most of them you can do yourself without the need for lab tests. I covered his post in the blog I write at, and I'm afraid that, in what is certainly recursive but necessary in this link-crazy world, I am cycling you through that in order to read his post. Is that too, too awful?