Love is in the genes

Lubna Abdel-Aziz, Tuesday 11 Feb 2020


The world is tremblingly alive, gushing and blushing in exquisite shades of scarlet, crimson, vermillion, flaming reds and warmest pink. For we are celebrating Valentine’s Day, the feast of love, the noblest of human emotions.

What is it, this thing called love? Bewitching and bewildering, weaving equal yards of pleasure and pain — of agony and ecstasy? And why is it celebrated in mid-winter rather than with April’s roses or May’s fragrant posies? Above all, who is this obscure and enigmatic saint and why is he the patron of love?

Most of us recall the story of the martyr priest who was executed by Emperor Claudius II, 14 February, about 269 AD just for loving lovers and performing the sacred sacrament of matrimony to young couples, defying the emperor’s orders forbidding marriage to young men, as unmarried men make better soldiers.

Two-hundred years later, in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius named 14 February St Valentine’s Day, which happened to coincide with the pagan feast of Lupercalia in honour of the god Lupercus, god of fertility, in an annual young man’s rite of passage. Adolescent men then chose their female companions.

As for February, in the old Roman calendar, February was the beginning of Spring, and throughout Europe and the Mediterranean celebrations were held to welcome the season of light and love, after months of a dreary, dark winter.

Shrouded with mystery is our strong desire to celebrate love, only to discover that love is in our genes. It is officially called the OXT gene, or love hormone, involved in the production of oxytocin — a hormone linked with a large number of social behaviour.

It is also referred to as the love gene hormone.

No, it is not equal in all human beings. Some among us have low OXT; they also have less activity in brain regions associated with social thinking. So love is not magical after all.

According to Instant Chemistry, up to 40 per cent of physical attraction can be determined through your genes alone.

Therefore, the love hormone is the key to our social life in general and to our romance in particular. “Low levels of oxytocin linked DNA to relationship quality.”

It is baffling to comprehend. This gush of human emotion, this irresistible attraction, this elusive chemistry between two people is now a science.

Love has its own rules, time and place. We can fall in love anytime of the year, and we do, so why is Spring always associated with love?

According to relationship expert April Masini, spring for humans is still what it is for animals” a time to get out from our winter cooped up shelters, and meet potential mates.

We enjoy the sunshine. It makes us happy and “puts us in a prime mental place in terms of romance. People want to reach out, they want to connect and they want romance.”

It is a natural pattern. If the sunny days of spring are good for the life of plants, they are good for our lives and our lives are absolutely better with love.

The sun is also good for our health. Vitamin D helps our bodies regulate calcium and phosphate, healthy teeth and bones and 90 per cent of our Vitamin D comes from exposure to the sun.

Along with the increased light and increased vigour, researchers found that flowers bring an instant mental lift, positive emotions, a boost of energy and fewer feelings of sadness. With birds singing, bees buzzing, flowers blooming everywhere, even scientists admit it is the season of falling in love.

Their explanation to this love-sickness is dopamine.

Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical, your brain uses to make you want things. It is triggered by new experiences and there is much novelty in Spring, that drive up the dopamine, and bam, here comes love.

Dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin are often referred to as our happy hormones. When you are attracted to another person your brain releases dopamine, your serotonin levels increase and oxytocin is produced.

Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus, a small region at the back of the brain. It has been directly linked to behavioural communication between romantic couples. Even playing with your dog can cause an oxytocin surge.

Closely related to motherhood, it was first discovered by Sir Henry Dale in 1909. Larry Young of Emory University believes it promotes mother-child bonding.

What about those unlucky souls who have low levels of oxytocin? Do they miss on all the pleasures of loving, cuddling and the rosy glow of first love? To raise oxytocin levels, particularly important to mothers is to hone your social relationships, share a meal, give a gift, or pet a dog, soak in a hot tub: learn to love and you shall become loveable. There are also nose sprays used mostly on autistic patients, raising their awareness.

All these chemicals have a profound attachment to the limbic system of our brain — the seat of emotion.

Even if it is February, which once was spring, forget the chill in the air. It is time for love in the air.

Anytime is the time to celebrate Love, but particularly on Valentine’s Day. Waste not a moment for life is a-fleeting and “he who has never loved, has never lived.”

If birds and bees can do it, so can we. It is spring already.

“Let’s fall in Love.”


*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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