Love in a test tube?

As the 14th of February approaches once again, the population seems to fall into three categories: those that embrace the sentimentality and romantic significance of the day, those that ignore the occasion completely, or those that wish the nauseating selection of sickly-sweet cards, red rose bouquets and heart-shaped novelties were thrown into an industrial shredder. Most of us will experience falling in love at some point, on average twice in our lifetimes in fact, and may choose to celebrate ‘catching the feels’ on this annual celebration. Regardless of how you view love, as some magical, mysterious entity or otherwise, the same biological factors are thought to be at work from person to person (sorry).

It is widely accepted that there are three main stages to falling in love: lust, attraction and attachment. Obviously the feeling of love itself is incredibly difficult to quantify but the chemicals thought to be involved in each stage can be. During lust, the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen play a major role, driving you to search and find potential partners. In other animals, these hormones trigger certain behaviours like mating calls, displays and preening. And before you think that humans have moved on far away from ‘primitive’ behaviours like howling for a mate or fluffing up feathers, we are nearly all guilty of wanting to look our best and impressing people we want to attract – just think of the effort that goes in to getting ready for a night out or a first date.

Once someone has tickled our fancy, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin kick in to build a deep attraction to that person. When you really start liking someone you may lose sleep, appetite and actively seek to spend as much time with them as possible. Soon enough attachment develops with the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin released during sex maintaining and strengthening the bond. All these chemicals play their part perhaps and we could even combine them all together to put love in a test tube, but why fall in love in the first place?

Studies with human pairings are difficult and often unethical so scientists turn to mammalian relatives to understand the evolutionary importance of forming close bonds with a single mate. One well-studied example is the prairie vole where the same attachment hormones seen in humans are released during mating, ensuring the male and female voles stay together from year to year. It is thought this is a better strategy for the voles as the males help rear any offspring and protect the female from other males, ensuring more babies survive to reproduce themselves (and therefore passing on the genes that encode this behaviour). These ‘love hormones’ have been seen widely across the mammalian group and not just in mated pairs but between family members and mothers and offspring too.

From a human perspective, a monogamous relationship is generally the societal norm in most cultures (though not all). However only 5% of mammals do the same so the role of hormones is still questionable. Polygamy is commonplace and harems can exist where one male mates with a group of females, seen with elephant seals and lion prides. The male ensures he has lots of offspring and the females are reassured that their children are fathered by the best candidate, as the male often has to fight off competition to gain and maintain his dominant position.

Clearly, monogamy as a reproductive strategy doesn’t work for everyone and therefore its role in human lifecycles is still debated. Is love really down to hormones driven by evolution or societal influences and our environment? Are we conditioned to feel it for one person or is it important for our species survival? This is a classic example of the nature vs. nurture debate, and one that doesn’t seem to be resolved anytime soon.

Regardless of whether you are in love, have ever been, or are yet to experience it, Valentine’s day looms, for better or for worse. Putting the science and joking aside, if you do find this day particularly difficult, then it’s even more important to focus on yourself for that day. Do things you enjoy, treat yourself to things you like, let yourself have some time away from work to watch that Netflix show everyone is talking about, have a relaxing bath or spend time with the loved ones you already have like friends and family, rather than craving one you don’t. And if you are still struggling, or you feel someone else might be, then don’t hesitate to contact:
• The Health Centre on 01784 443131, or your local GP
• The College Counselling Service on 01784 443128, or email [email protected]
• Mind on 0300 123 3393, or visit mind.org.uk
• The Mix (a support service for under 25’s) on 0808 808 4994, or visit themix.org.uk/get-support
• Samaritan’s on 116 123, or visit samaritans.org