DE RERUM NATURA:  LOVE  IN THE TIME OF DOT.COMS
 

MANILA, October 29, 2005
 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - Ever heard perhaps the only time that Marlon Brando sang? It was in the musical film Guys and Dolls (1955) where he played a high-stakes gambler named Sky Masterson, motivated by a bet initiated by Nathan Detroit (played by Frank Sinatra), to date Sarah Brown (played by Jean Simmons), a member of the Salvation Army, with whom Sky eventually fell in love. When asked how could a love match between someone like him and a morally upright lady happen, Brando replied in a voice unmistakably taken: "It’s chemistry." Fifty years later and now we have chemistry.com – an online match-making service.

I first read about chemistry.com in Wired magazine online last Oct 13. At first, I could not believe that the online commerce of match-making possessed the domain "chemistry.com." I tried all the branches of science I could think of (physics.com, biology.com, ecology.com, paleontology.com, astronomy.com, etc.) and they all gave me websites with contents that were directly related to their specific branch of science. I hardly intend to rouse the sleeping giants of chemistry but you fellows ought to know that the match-making site has beaten you to your logical Internet domain name.

Chemistry.com distinguishes and prides itself for taking a "scientific approach" to match-making because they ask subscribers to answer a lengthy questionnaire designed by anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University. Then they go through some proprietary computational mumbo-jumbo and offer you possible matches. In the interest of thoroughness, a columnist would try the service herself. But I have to tell you that I did not get to try the questionnaire since when asked where I lived, they said they were "coming soon" in my area. But the site and the report from Wired said the questionnaire is based on her book Why We Love The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Henry Holt and Company, NY: 2004), and I have read the book and at the back of the book is a questionnaire.

I already wrote a column entitled Two Rivers of Thought last June 23 on this particular research, after Fisher and her team had their "love experiment" published in the science journal Neurophysiology last May 31 (yes, she came out with a book first before her work appeared in a journal). The entire science of love research revolves around what happens to our brains when we fall in love and this they did by hooking up "brains-in-love" to fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines. This is just a technology that shows how much bloodflow is going to certain regions in the brain, making them light up in various intensities, depending on how much blood flow goes into certain parts. Since certain regions in the brain are known to be responsible for certain behaviors and feelings and thoughts, then the "neural map" from fMRI will show how love sets our actions, emotions and ideas on fire.

Their bottom-line – being in love is hard-wired into our brains, a primal need to pass on our DNA, like hunger and thirst and that three chemicals seem to take center stage for this state of being in love, namely high levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and low levels of serotonin.

They concluded that love is primal because a part of the brain that was set especially aglow was the caudate nucleus, part of our reptilian brain that was there before mammalian brains evolved. For the subjects in love, dopamine in the brain was switched on high, lending unwavering focus in this case, on the beloved. There were also high levels of norepinephrine found in the brains-in-love that give rise to feelings of exhilaration and excessive energy. A low level of serotonin found in the same love-soaked brains may also explain why being in love shares the same "neural dark spots" as the mentally ill since low levels of serotonin are also found in those with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Let us first suspend the almost automatic and understandable objection most people have against falling in love being defined only in terms of molecular reactions and evolutionary behavior. I have a more pressing issue with the claims of this website. I looked everywhere between Fisher’s book and her current works related to this science of love and nowhere did I find the link that could make her work a legitimate scientific basis for their claims. This is because her work "experimented" on people already in love (and of course, they also had subjects who were not in love as a control group), so how could her work extend its claims on people who are yet to find Mr. or Ms. Right based on her questionnaire? Chemistry.com even has a flashing sign on their website that says their method has been "validated by Ph.Ds" and will offer you love-matches with "a potential to ignite some real chemistry in your life." That is really funny since I have been engaged in a tumultuous doctoral pursuit and at no time were we told that this level of mind-bashing could eventually land us a steady flow of income since it meant we can really solve the deepest, most puzzling questions of humanity like why and whom we love by lending our research to questionnaires in online services such as a dating service.

In the last chapter of her book, Fisher said that while her work gave us a neuro-scientific understanding of love, it should not destroy the mystery of love. Reading her book never destroyed it for me. I greatly appreciated her insights into what happens to a gray blob in love, but it is a big intellectual leap from her original work to extend her research claims to people who pay a site to make matches for them using her "scientific questionnaire." Chemistry.com thinks you have a much better chance catching love with a net woven with her scientific questionnaire and some algorithms, than when left to chance. I think any kind of method ensuring a "sure catch" on a complex subject such as love, is always suspect even when cloaked in science, and no less hazy than astrology. We may possess a bundle of gray primal blob seeking for the perpetuation of our DNA as it is soaked in dopamine and norepinephrine and deprived of serotonin when we are in love, but hey, I have my way with my own DNA and willfully, if I decide that I do not want them to go on, they cannot simply get off from my cells and hitch a ride on others’ (unless someone who has my DNA clones it without my knowing). And if any of my DNA doesn’t like it, as neuroscientist Steven Pinker said, "they could go jump in the lake." And as for those love chemicals – when the heartbeat of your dying beloved, in deep brainsleep, changes only when you walk into the room, where are the three love musketeer-chemicals to account for that?

In Guys and Dolls, Brando and Simmons sang about love in their song’s refrain: "But this is wine that’s all too strange and strong. I’m full of foolish song and out my song must pour." Wine is a good metaphor for love since, like love, it invites ALL the senses to dwell in the experience – it sparkles when it is white, even blushes and rages when red for the eyes to see, flavored and spirited for us to taste, aromatic for us to smell, swirled in a glass for us to feel and they sing through the glasses we toast for us to hear. Falling in love is a most profound and pleasurable experience since it is a complete one. But I think we are still worlds away from a total understanding of how and why it "completes" us, neurologically or otherwise. The brain is often likened to the universe itself; we are starting to get to know it more than ever before but in a sense, it is still mostly unknown. Let us not be foolish to declare that with one experiment, we have woven a net big and intricate enough to fully understand why and whom we love. We might instead get ourselves entangled and caged in our own current understanding and imagination.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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