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11 February 2007
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
by Paul Aitken

On February 4th, 2007, Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who had acted as a mission control specialist on a shuttle flight to the International Space Station last July was on a mission of a different kind. She loaded up a duffel bag with a steel mallet, a high-powered BB gun, a buck knife and other accoutrements of nefarious intent, strapped on a pair of astronaut diapers and drove nine hours from Houston, Texas to the airport in Orlando, Florida. Her mission: To intercept a rival for the affections of her lover.

What exactly was on Nowak's mind will be discussed and contested ad tedium in her upcoming trial but the truth will probably never be known because Nowak herself likely did not know exactly what she was going to do. All she knew was that she had to do something. The something in this case involved disguising herself in a hooded trench coat and attacking her rival with pepper spray as she got into her car. Not exactly the precision planning one might expect from one of NASA's finest, but as anyone who knew Ms Nowak would attest, she wasn't acting like herself.

Had Ms Nowak been a software engineer or an accountant for Taco Bell, it's unlikely anybody would have noticed or cared. The whole sad affair would have been just another case filed under "love gone wrong." As it was, tabloid headline writers had a field day with puns. Astronut! Space Cadet! Lust In Space! People around the world were instantly fascinated by the story and I believe it was more than the usual gleeful schadenfreude we all feel at the vertiginous downfall of the once high and mighty. People may have expressed shock and asked how someone who had everything could give it all up for... some guy? But deep inside they knew, as would anybody who has truly experienced it; love can drive you nuts.

Looked at objectively, love is really a mental illness. It involves elements of delusion, addiction and obsessive compulsion. It can take you from the peaks of euphoria to the depths of depression faster and deeper than any cycle of manic depression. It can propel otherwise normal people to acts of suicide and murder. If love was a drug it would be banned. As it is, it's experienced by just about everybody; usually several times over the course of one's life. We've all gone a little insane at one point or another.

But what is remarkable about love is not its psychotic potential nor its universality, but its strength. When love is at its peak, either at its euphoric zenith or when we feel it slipping away from us, it consumes us completely. We are powerless to escape its entreaties. It grips more tightly than any addiction. It brings greater elation than any opiate and can lead to anguish unmatched by any event save the death of a child. It obliterates rational, even moral thought. Men and women will pursue love's whims at the cost of their families and careers. At its worst it will drive women like Susan Smith to kill her children rather than lose the man she loved. In the annals of love's excesses, a solo cross-country drive in diapers to pepper-spray a man-stealing bitch scarcely merits mention. Love is a potent drug indeed.

The only effective antidote to love's elixir is time. The feeling that you swear will last forever... doesn't. And for those who have experienced its ravages and emerged with their life intact, they can but reflect and wonder; what the hell was that all about? Up until recently that was perhaps a question best left to poets and songwriters (it's been estimated that 80 percent of songs are about love), but over the last decade or so, scientists have put in serious lab time to get to the bottom of it all.

The first question to ask is: why do we fall in love in the first place? Yeah, sure we need to be attracted to the opposite sex - it would be a pretty short-lived species that wasn't. But why do we have to get all mushy and moon-faced about it? Lust is an absolute necessity, love is not. So why does love affect us so much more deeply? No guy ever jumped off a cliff because he couldn't get laid, but many people - mostly men for some reason - have killed themselves over love. No one doubts that romantic love is an evolved instinct. Forget what Margaret Mead said about love being a product of culture. Passionate love is a human universal. It's also believed by many scientists to be an emotion shared by other mammals and perhaps even birds, although curiously, not our immediate primate kin.

The capacity for "affectionate attachment" appears to arise independently amongst those species that pair-bond to raise their progeny and this makes perfect sense. But why is it so debilitating in humans. What possible survival advantage is conferred by an instinct that literally drives you insane? Lust makes sense. Affectionate attachment makes sense. Checking your email every thirty seconds to see if she's responded to the amusing U Tube link you sent her, doesn't. Romantic love's intoxicating power remains a mystery.

Part of the answer to this mystery may lie in the actual mechanisms by which love rules our minds. Although it all seems part of a whole, romantic love actually involves three different and competing brain systems which most of us will recognize as the three "stages of love." The first of these is sexual attraction. Lust if you will. Lust is driven by sex hormones (testosterone in particular), in conjunction with visual stimulation and whatever predisposition you have regarding what you find attractive. It's worth noting here that nobody actually falls in love at first sight. Love, at least the "River deep, mountain high/ I'd walk a thousand miles to fall down at you door" kind of love, requires interaction. Okay, sure, some guys wake up one morning and decide they're in love with the weather lady, but they're the exceptions. Real love grows out of mutual discovery.

No one has so far come up with a good theory as to why we fall in love with certain people and not others. The best offered is that we each carry our own individual "love map" of what we want in a mate - essentially all our conscious and unconscious preferences. When we meet Ms. (or Mrs.) Right, all the tumblers line up, and our brain screams "Jackpot." This can happen quickly or slowly, but when our brain decides it's found a love match then a different neural system begins to kick in. And when it does, watch out! The feeling that most of us associate with the emotion of romantic love is not actually an emotion at all. This came as a great surprise to scientists when they conducted MRI brains scans of people in the "crazy in love" stage of romance. The scientists expected to find brain activity centered in the limbic system, the part of brain exclusive to mammals and generally referred to as the "emotional brain." Instead they found concentrations of activity in the caudate nucleus, located in the primitive "reptilian" brain responsible for autonomous functions as well as basic drives such as hunger and thirst.

Romantic love, then, is part of the brain's motivational system located deep in the unconscious mind and driven by the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, along the same neural pathways that addictive drugs travel. Viewed in this light, a lot of things begin to make sense. For one thing, it explains in part why we go so nuts over love. Once our brain has decided it wants one specific person, then it keeps sending out signals that urge us to be with that person. Once we are with that special someone we want to be as close as possible to them. We want to touch them, kiss them and make love to them. It's less about sex than satiating the need to be as close to them as possible. And when we are, the reward is incandescent happiness. But watch what happens when the goal is thwarted. We pine when our loved one is away at work. We can't wait until the end of the day when we can fall once again into each other's arms. If our loved one is away for an extended period the signals get stronger. Thoughts become more obtrusive. We can't get them out of our minds.

And if our loved one decides to pull away for good then we're in for a whole world of pain because the signals don't stop, in fact, they start screaming. Dopamine and norepinephrine levels actually increase in this critical phase and all our big rational neocortical brain can do is scheme and plot to satisfy that endless aching need. It was during this phase presumably that Ms Nowak decided to pack her duffel bag and go on a little road trip. It's not so much that love is insane; it's just that the part of our brain that generates the yearning is simply not equipped to deal with reason.

A third stage of love is the "attachment phase" and this seems to be mediated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Interestingly, high levels of oxytocin and vasopressin actually interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which explains in part why when attachment grows, "crazy love" fades. You won't be willing to walk a thousand miles just to fall down at her door anymore, but you're happy to go to the local store to pick up some cream for her coffee. That may not be romance but that's love, baby.

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