Love: More than Just a Chemical Reaction?


Well in this instance it is a subject of study for biological anthropologists, who look at evolution and the chemical things that happen in our brains in given circumstances, among other things. Oddly enough, according to this article at Brain Pickings, it appears that contra the notion that we are just bodies with no soul or souls that pilot meaningless bodies, our Christian notion that we are a composite of body and soul that have an effect on one another seems to make sense…

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talkDr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love. …

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

What was it Christ said about spewing the lukewarm from his mouth? He’d rather you be hot or cold, let your yes mean yes and no mean no, etc.

“Romantic love” isn’t exactly what we’re supposed to bring to the table in our relationship with God, but the part about obsessive thinking tracks with “pray unceasingly” if you consider prayer to be the lifting of the mind and heart to God; an effort to converse with God interiorly in all situations about all things. If we get good at this and really dedicate ourselves to it we probably will develop an affinity for God.

The money quotes comes toward the end. First:

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives.

How true. If we dull our ability to feel sadness we have also dulled our ability to feel happiness. If we cannot fall into despair we cannot cling to hope. If we cannot choose to harm ourselves we cannot choose to help ourselves. Life is lived amidst that balancing act, that constant stream of choices for the good or for less-good or even evil options or chances. If it is impossible to fall then it is impossible to rise.

This is true philosophically and spiritually, now we know it is true physiologically. We are enfleshed souls, so, of course.

Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?


In the end, love does not quite fit the categories of biology and anthropology and it does not make perfect sense when looked at as mere chemical processes. “The heart has reasons that the reason cannot grasp.” Love “is not a tame lion,” you might say. Of course not, because it is the self-diffusive, life-giving, devoted, ecstatic life of God experienced on earth. No scan or test tube can hope to test and explain that.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Tom Crowe is a cradle Catholic with a deep love for and commitment to Holy Mother the Church, colored by a rather interesting life-long relationship with her. Born during the great liturgical upheaval of the 1970s, Crowe was brought up in a parish that continued using the Missal of 1962—the Traditional Latin Mass—for which he developed a love. Crowe learned the faith as a child from the Baltimore Catechism, and didn’t stop learning and wrestling with the Church’s teachings at his Confirmation. Through reading and many conversations with friends and converts far smarter than he, Crowe came to know, accept, and love the Church and what she proposes far more intimately. For three years these conversation took place in seminary before Crowe, with the blessing of the formation team, determined that seminary was not right for him. In the wild and humorous ways of God, Crowe landed on his feet in Steubenville, Ohio, where he manages the online presence for Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he also trains altar servers and is the head master of ceremonies for the Mass in the Extraordinary Form on campus.

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