Infuse the brain of a female prairie vole with the hormone oxytocin and she’ll quickly bond with the nearest male. In a similar manner, the hormone vasopressin creates urges for bonding and nesting when injected in the brains of male voles.
Neuroscientist Dr. Larry Young of Emery University opines that in human beings “sexuality has evolved to stimulate that same oxytocin system to create female-male bonds.”
It addition to working in concert with sexual desire and bonding, oxytocin seems to enhance feelings of trust and empathy. Somehow these emotions are wrapped up in the same stimulus package.
Analogs of hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin may turn out to be bona fide love potions, much more potent that those brewed by apothecaries in antiquity.
Biochemists might also be able to develop drugs that block these hormone receptor sites in the brain, producing individuals who seek the pleasure of sex without stimulating any need for long-term bonding. Some might argue that, in light of today’s sexual mores, such drugs would be unnecessary.
But would sex without emotional bonding be classified as love?
Unlike modern English, the ancient Greek language had four words for love. Storge denoted a mother’s love for her infant. Philia described brotherly love between friends. Eros, from which we get our modern term erotic, denoted sexual love. Agape was reserved to describe the unconditional divine love of God.
The ancient Greeks knew what they were talking about. Many times we in contemporary culture don’t, because we lack the vocabulary to crystallize these concepts.
While it may be triggered by surges of hormones, human love is more than mere biochemistry, because it entails more than just sex and bonding.
I recently read a profoundly descriptive passage on this subject in Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which the heroine, 16-year-old Francie Nolan, muses on her emotional needs:
“I need someone,” thought Francie desperately. “I need someone. I need to hold somebody close. And I need more than this holding. I need someone to understand how I feel at a time like now. And the understanding must be part of the holding.”
Despite the growing number of pharmacologic substances available to enhance the sexual act, I still feel, like Francie, that “the understanding must be part of the holding.”
In the end it’s the understanding that’s vastly more satisfying; it’s the understanding that makes us human.