Since time began, love has remained a mystical phenomenon, the foundation for movies, plays, art and music.

But what is love, exactly? And why, in the early stages, does it usually make a person feel dizzy, punch-drunk or crazy?

According to scientists, love, like all things bound to the universe, is non-existent without some amount of physics and chemistry to it. In other words, cupid’s arrows would never have been effective if they had not first been dipped in phenylethylamine.

Phenylethylamine is known as the “love drug” and is thought to be the reason why chocolate is said to be an aphrodisiac. It is a chemical that mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love, so when levels of phenylethylamine are high in the body, it relieves depression from unrequited love. This may be one of the reasons so many women love chocolate - it really is a mood elevator.

Triggers releasing PEA from the brain can include simple actions such as eyes meeting or hands touching. Heady emotions, racing pulses and heavy breathing results, and all these are clinically explained as an overdose of PEA.

Dr. Claire McLoughlin, scientist for the Royal Society of Chemisty in England, explained love has distinct stages, each with their own characteristic emotional profile and scientific explanation.

“First is lust,” sad McLoughlin. “Lust is driven by testosterone and oestrogen; hormones that get us ‘out on the pull.’ After lust comes attraction. This is the love-struck phase; the time when we lose our appetite, can’t sleep and can’t concentrate.”

The attraction phase is what people most closely associate with “falling in love.”

“When we fall in love, our palms sweat, we can stutter and become breathless and it feels like we have butterflies in our stomachs,” said McLoughlin. “This is all due to surging brain chemicals called monoamines, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine and serotonin excite us, while dopamine makes us feel happy. These love chemicals are controlled by PEA, and it is PEA which controls the transition from lust to love. Similar in structure to amphetamines, PEA, too, gives us that excitement we crave.”

Some people become veritable love junkies, and often find themselves experiencing addict-like cravings, according to McLoughlin.

“They [love junkies] need a constant love high, and go through life in a series of short relationships which crumble when the initial chemical rush wanes,” said McLoughlin. “The love junky has another problem, too. We naturally build up a tolerance to these chemicals eventually, so it takes more and more to produce that much-sought-after high. Love junkies, if they stay married, are likely to seek frequent affairs to fuel their need for the chemical love high.”

Dr. Amy Smith, assistant professor of biology at Northeastern State University, has been emparting tidbits of biology trivia with a Valentine theme to her students lately.

“The male of the hanging fly species brings ‘gifts’ of food to the female he wants to mate with,” said Smith. “The food is a distraction, as the male mates with the female while she’s eating. If the morsel is too small, sometimes the male fly ends up being dessert. But what’s worse is, if the morsel is too large, the male will steal the remainder, fly off and use it to entice another female!”

Sometimes, the hanging fly will wrap the gift in silk so the female takes longer to eat it, giving the male fly “bonus time,” said Smith.

“I also told the students to beware of the ‘empty box’ gift,” said Smith. “Another species of fly will make a wrapping of silk with no food in it, just to woo the female into mating with him. So, before committing, I suggest checking that box of chocolates to make sure it’s not empty.”

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University recently teamed up with researchers Arthur Aron from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Lucy Brown from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York to investigate the neural manifestations of early-stage romantic love. The group set out to establish whether loves works like a fundamental emotion such as fear, or whether it’s produced by the feedback loops of the brain’s reward system in a similar way to cocaine addiction.

Researches conducted a study of 10 women and seven men claiming to have been intensely in love, and assessed them by interviews before and after using magnetic resonance imaging. During the MRI, participants were show a photo of their romantic partner and asked to recall cherished memories of that person. As negative controls, they were also shown photos of other friends and family and asked the same question.

To eliminate any romantic feelings, subjects were made to count backward from a randomly selected four-digit number in steps of seven. Researchers suggest trying this procedure to clear the brain from romantic overload; it seems to have been efficient within less than a minute.

By comparing the scans, researches were able to pin down several key regions of the brain that appear to be involved in intense romantic feelings, but not, for example, face recognition. All of these regions are unrelated to primeval instincts and emotions such as fear, but are linked to the reward system that addicts many people to drugs.

“Romantic love is primarily a reward system, which leads to various emotions,” Fisher Aron and Brown concluded.

Fisher and her colleagues also looked at what happens to the brain when love goes wrong.

“We all get dumped at one point or another,” said Fisher. “So I wanted to see what happens in the brain when you are rejected in love.”

Fisher and her colleagues used MRI with a group of 15 volunteers whose partners had recently left them. Following the preliminary results, Fisher arrived at a startling conclusion.

“A lot happens in the brain when you look at a photo of someone who has just abandoned you,” said Fisher. “Including activity in brain regions associated with physical pain, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, controlling anger, and regions thhat we use when we are tring to speculate on what someone else is thinking.”

Instead of switching off the brain activities involved with the previous romantic bliss, Fisher found that when a person is rejected, he or she starts to love the rejecting partner even harder.

The third stage of love is attachment, which takes over from the attraction stage and is the bond which keeps couples together. Two hormones are involved during this stage: oxytocin and vasopressin.

Vasopressin is the monogamy chemical. According to McLoughlin, only about 3 percent of mammals are monogamous, mating and bonding with one partner for life.

“Unfortunately, humans are not one of these naturally monogamous animals,” said McLoughlin.

Oxytocin, the cuddling chemical, not only increases the bond between lovers, but is also one of the chemicals responsible for childbirth contractions, lactation and is released by both sexes during orgasmn.

“The theory goes, therefore, the more sex a couple have, the greater the bond between them,” said McLoughlin. “Nice touch, Mother Nature.”

What’s in a name?

There are a number of different Greek words for love, as the Greek language distinguishes several different senses in which the word love is used. For example, ancient Greek used the words “philia,” “eros,” “agape,” “storge” and “xenia” to refer to different aspects of love. However, as with many other languages, it has been historically difficult to separate the meanings of these words totally. For example, the ancient Greek text of the Bible has examples of the verb agapo being used with the same meaning as phileo. Nonetheless, the senses in which these words were generally used are given below. The first four words have also been discussed from a Christian perspective in the best-selling book “The Four Loves” by C. S. Lewis.

“Agape” means love in modern day Greek. The term “s’agapo” means “I love you” in Greek. The word agapo is the verb “I love.” In Ancient Greek it generally refers to a “pure,” ideal type of love rather than the physical attraction suggested by eros. For example, in the New Testament this is the verby used to desribe God’s love for humanity. However, there are also some examples of agape used to mean the same as eros. It has also been translated as “love of the soul.”

Eros is passionate love, with sensual desire and longing. The Greek word “erota” means in love. Plato refined his own definition. Although eros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even becomes appreciation of beauty itself. Eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty, and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth. Lovers and philosophers are all inspired to seek truth by eros. Some translations list it as “love of the body.”

“Philia,” means friendship in modern Greek, a dispassionate virtuous love, was a concept developed by Aristotle. It includes loyalty to friends, family, and community, and requires virtue, equality and familiarity. Philia is motivated by practical reasons; one or both of the parties benefit from the relationship.

It is questionable whether either only any one of these forms of love can be present at any one time, or whether multiple forms of love can exist side by side. Certain boundaries between each catergory are undefined, so where it may be impossible to disguinguish between eros and philia, one thing is certain; love knows no bounds.

“Storge” means affection in modern Greek; it is natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring.

“Xenia,” means hospitality in modern Greek and was an extremely important practice in ancient Greece. It was an almost ritualized friendship formed between a host and their guest, who could previously be strangers. The host fed and provided quarters for the guest, who was only expected to repay with gratitude. The importance of this can be seen throughout Greek mythology, in particular Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”

Source: Wikipedia, online encyclopedia, February, 2006.