The digestive tract of love

Abstract: “Love you with all my heart”? A scientific impossibility, I’m afraid…

One of the downfalls of being brought up in a home that embraced the pursuit of knowledge through robust and empirical scientific process is that I find this time of the year really gets up my nose. And I’m not talking about hay fever.

My father was, during the 1960s, one of Europe’s leading scientists. He was, by all accounts, something of a genius. Computers were his area of expertise, but his real love was scientific enquiry and the quest for logical thought. And he shared it with me in his own special way. He explained why Spock was the coolest character on Star Trek because he was purely logical in his thinking and didn’t let piffly little things like emotions get in the way of his duties as First Officer on board the Starship Enterprise.

I, therefore, grew up with the belief that logic was a slave to emotion and that when people started getting emotional, cool logic took a back seat in what would invariably become a bumpy and sometimes nasty ride. This line of thinking has served me well. Apart from leading me away from the nasty vortex of pseudosciences such as astrology and preventing me from being deluded by all manner of modern snake-oil salesmen; I like to think that it has stopped emotions corrupting my judgement, and also encouraged me to bypass the silly things we get suckered into spending money on.

Like Valentines Day, for example. Amble around any shopping centre over the next few weeks and you’ll be press-ganged into parting with your hard-earned cash just so that you can ‘prove’ that you love someone. The subtext is quite clear: if you don’t spend money on them on this particular day, you don’t love them and your private parts will rot in hell forever.

At the risk of sounding like the cold-hearted passion-killer you no doubt think I am, ask yourself the following question: if you really love a person, why do you have to wait for a date dictated by others to tell them how much you love them? Surely expressions of love should be spontaneous and personal, not planned to coincide with everyone else?

But the scientist in me reserves the most vitriol on Valentines Day for the expression ‘love you with all my heart’. You see, scientifically speaking, that is factually so riddled with inaccuracies that it doesn’t hold any water. You might as well say to the person you hold so dear, “Darling I love you with all my digestive tract”.

The real seat of any emotion, including love, is, in fact, the brain, not the heart. This strange association between the heart and love dates back to the days when people still believed the sun revolved around the earth; that the earth was flat and that the moon made you loony. All this is, of course, rubbish: everyone knows that the earth revolves around the sun, the earth is spheroid in shape; and it is the ANC’s street renaming, not the earth’s natural satellite, that is driving everyone a little batty.

People in those days believed that the heart was the ‘seat of love’ because of the physiological expressions the body often displayed during feelings of intense ‘love’ – the slight tightness of the chest and the quickening of the heartbeat whenever a loved one was near. In reality though, as we now know, the heart is nothing more than a pump that circulates blood. Admittedly it is an important pump, but it is nonetheless just a pump. On the other hand, the brain is the driving force of all our emotions, including love; and everything that is to do with ‘love’ is either influenced or controlled by it. If our heart breaks – literally – we can still live with a little mechanical help. But if our brain goes bust, we cease to exist as humans.

Let’s prove this by breaking down ‘love’ into its constituent parts: First of all, there is the initial ‘wow’ moment when you first set eyes on someone and you feel like that person has, some might say, ‘slam-dunked your heart’. Anthropologically speaking it’s a time dominated by the desire to mate. That emotion comes about thanks to a burst of sex hormones into the blood – testosterone in men and oestrogen in women. Of course, the actual sensations associated with this little chemical injection are only made possible thanks to the nervous systems, the centre of which is the brain.

The second step in ‘love’ is the attraction phase when the initial lust mellows and the desire to mate is focused on a commitment to a single individual. Neuroscientists identify this phase with the release of certain chemicals by the brain, including pheromones, serotonin and dopamine. These stimulate the brain’s pleasure centre and give you that euphoric warm and fuzzy feeling.

Finally, once you’ve physically paired off with your mate, you slide into the attachment phase of love where the focus is on securing a suitable habitat and then churning out offspring. The emotions associated with this phase – the sense of security in a partnership – have been linked, especially in women, to higher levels of the chemical oxytocin, which is normally released during childbirth. The source of this chemical is a small pea-sized gland in your skull called the pituitary gland. Yep, that darn brain again!

Sorry, but the harsh reality for all starry-eyed romantics is that all those chemicals that produce the physical sensations that we ascribe to ‘love’ may be pumped through the body by the heart, but they are either produced or controlled by the brain.

So if you’re happy for your relationship to be based on empty, commercialised and phoney platitudes, buy your loved one a teddy bear with a heart on it. If however, you went to tell them that you really, really do love them and that they are responsible for every wonderful emotion you experience when they are near, look into their eyes and repeat the following: “Darling, I love you with all my brain”.

Originally published in the Sunday Times, 8 February 2009