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They say love is blind but here’s a new book that for the first time offers a clear and clinical view of that most fundamental of human experiences.
A science-focused analysis of love that reduces every amorous sensation and feeling to a practical biological function might sound like it would shatter any romantic ideals, but in fact it offers fascinating insights into our behaviour that could actually help us find, and hold on to, a true love that lasts a lifetime.
And it couldn’t come at a better moment. With divorce and separation rates soaring, couples seem to be finding it harder than ever to form bonds that stand the test of time.
Unlike other books on the science of love, True Love is actually written by a scientist. Respected US-based neurologist and neurophysiologist Dr Fred Nour, himself happily married with children, thinks the reason why many partnerships dissolve is that individuals have enshrined unrealistic expectations when it comes to love.
Over the course of the book’s 300-plus pages he carefully deconstructs love so, by the end, we understand the whole process in the same way that a magician might explain his tricks. His hope is that armed with this knowledge, people will make better choices and enjoy the rich rewards that science shows comes with true love.
Beginning by outlining the evidence that the concept of ‘love’ exists in all human cultures and has existed since time immemorial, he goes on to explain in simple terms why we experience love in the first place.
This is on account of the evolution of the human brain, moving beyond the basic mechanical responses of the primitive reptilian brain where the concept of a loving relationship is impossible, and past the more advanced avian mind, to our multi-faceted grey matter.
What may come as a surprise is that love is, actually, comprised of four distinct phases, all determined by changing chemical interactions within the brain.
The first phase of love is mate selection, and it’s interesting to learn that exactly whom we ‘fall for’ is based on our own genetics and brains. There are a whole number of ways someone unconsciously determines if another is potentially ‘the one’, such as the pheromones they give off, but this is hard-wired and can’t be influenced by potential beaus to any substantial degree.
This is followed by the romance phase, where the brain produces a potent mix of neurotransmitters called monoamines that are responsible for those giddy feelings of joy and exhilaration.
The bad news, Dr Nour reveals, is that this is only a passing phase and can’t last more than two to three years. It’s the next stage – the ‘falling out of love’ phase – that leaves many couples crashing on the rocks just as the levels of monoamines coming crashing back down.
But bitter as it may feel, falling out of love is actually essential to allow us to properly assess a potential mate before committing to starting a family. From a Darwinian perspective this makes total sense: parents need to be able to form long-term bonds to care for their offspring.
The changes in the brain during this stage allows the final phase, and proper biological goal of love, to come into effect. Dr Nour calls this ‘true love’ and it is determined by the level of nonapeptides (oxytocin and vasopressin) in the brain. Unlike the intensity of the romance period, true love is gradual and effortful but can last forever.
The book may sound dry and scientific but it’s anything but. Nour writes with an admirable clarity and personality that carries the reader along without any danger of being swamped by science, while he illustrates his points through sharing personal experiences — both from his own life and those of associates — and constant call-backs to pop culture such as love songs and romantic films.
Ideal for fans of popular science or anyone who is curious about how and why Cupid shoots his arrows, True Love is a book you will quickly find yourself falling for.