Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

L’Amour et l’Occident. Love, opera, and neurochemistry

Let’s examine such a mainstream topic as love. Sounds overly analyzed and scrutinized and in overall – quite mundane, but I still don’t think it’s been analyzed properly. Although I don’t think I’m supposed to be writing any of this because it’s against my long-term self-interest – I’m supposed to feed my audience with stories about eternal love – but intellectual integrity is the most attractive quality, and we’re supposed to be true to ourselves. So let’s put a definitive conclusion to all the sentimental whining. 

Epistemologically speaking, it’s only possible to attain truth through a multidisciplinary approach – identifying patterns in several spheres: sociology, literature, neuroscience – and building a nomological network based on a variety of inputs. So I have approached the topic from a few angles: natural and cultural, scientific and poetic, neurochemical and musical. In plain terms – by reading research papers on neurophysiology, revising good old Denis de Rougemont and Plato’s Symposium, and listening to hours of Verdi, Purcell, Wagner, and Puccini (what a task! but which other genre involves such a nauseating amount of excessively romantic tales if not classic opera!)

It seems a big deficiency to me that no one yet attempted to analyze all this sentimental bullshit from the perspective of modern neuroscience (the only ultimately truthful perspective!). To make it epistemologically even more sound – it’s always helpful to run experiments on humans, although often considered unethical (even though the most dedicated researchers may resort to running experiments on themselves).

Classical operas are weird. They’re mostly about people doing ridiculous stuff. Tristan and Iseult. Armida and Rinald. Dido and Aeneas. Aida and Radames. How ridiculous their choices are. In order to enjoy opera and relate to its irrational characters one needs to be in a very particular state of mind. Otherwise they just sound silly. Would a truly rational person sacrifice the great city of Jerusalem for the love of a random man they just met? Or renounce the rule over the kingdom of Egypt for a female slave? They vaguely justify it by such an ambiguous term as love – but what do they really mean?

Two conditions

‘True love’ in modern Western definition of the term requires two conditions: reciprocity and long-lastingness.

None of these was a necessary prerequisite in the Ancient world. When ancient Greeks spoke about ‘love’ they meant something completely different – usually a homoerotic passion arising from a relationship between a good-looking boy (eromenos) and an older man (erastes) chasing him. Which was perfectly understandable – probabilistically speaking, it’s a rare event that two people would find a match of qualities they like in each other, as well as each other’s company equally thrilling. An old man would be attracted to beauty of a boy, but a boy isn’t likely to be attracted to wisdom and personality of an old man (unless it’s Alcibiades and Socrates). Only the modern Western tradition somehow started to require romantic feelings to be mutual.

Although reciprocity is occasionally attainable, the condition of long-lastingness is even more tricky. This is why according to the canon, proper love stories need to end abruptly. Preferably in death – either murder or a suicide. Tristan dies of a poisoned lance. Armida is killed by a sword of Rinald. Aida and Radames are sealed in a tomb alive. Dido commits suicide by building a pyre so high that its blaze is visible from the ship of Aeneas (before producing the most heart-breaking lament in the opera history – ‘When I am laid in earth’). A proper love story needs to be tragic as hell. As Denis de Rougemont wrote, ‘what these people need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence’.

Here’s why.

The chemistry behind 

Rationality is defined by an ability to act in accordance with one’s long-term self-interest. The characters of classic love stories are obviously irrational – as if under the influence of some substance. Indeed, many stories incorporate an element of sorcery and magic. Tristan and Iseult drink a love potion (the effect of which lasts for 3 years!). Armida enchants Rinald through her power of a sorceress.

The metaphor of love potion is very understandable – in fact, the neurochemical research shows that drug addiction and the feeling of love in humans are absolutely parallel.

Addiction works in the following way. Under normal circumstances, human motivation is controlled by the standard brain reward circuitry: a system of paths between prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens which triggers a release dopamine every time we eat, socialize, complete tasks, and achieve our long-term goals. This is what motivates people to live and reproduce (and apply any effort whatsoever). Mice without dopamine become couch potatoes. In the state of addiction, this fragile circuit gets completely messed up – the addictive substance completely overwrites one’s brain reward system. Whatever used to incentivize one in the past becomes meaningless compared to the wonderful dopamine spike obtained from a drug. That’s why people do unreasonable things, quit their jobs, and sell TVs of their grandmothers. Or – sacrifice Jerusalem for the love of a random man they just met.

Here’s how Larry J. Young describes the activation of reward system associated with the state of being in love: ‘Dopamine in the accumbens and hypothalamus plummets. Oxytocin is released into the blood and the brain. Endocannabinoids, the brain version of marijuana, make us a little sleepy. Serotonin gushes from serotonergic neurons, inducing a feeling of calm, satiety, satisfaction. Opioids, such as endorphins, that have been slowly building to heighten appetitive reward now surge, flooding into the limbic system and hypothalamic areas’.

The fact that humankind for centuries has been composing songs, poems and books praising love… is like composing odes to heroin. Ode to joy, ode to opioids. 

In Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, when Rhein nymphs ask Albrecht if he would renounce love for the sake of Rhein gold and a ring to hold power over whole world, they find it unthinkable than anyone would agree to such a deal. What they’re truly asking is: would you renounce an opportunity to take the most powerful, joyful, and pleasant opioid in the world (would you renounce heroin – except 100% natural and organic). A burst of dopamine, a wonderful flood of neurochemicals. What a loss! Would anyone agree?

How much people are prone to addictions is pretty much determined by genes: how much  pleasure we get from nicotine or how high we feel when smoking weed. The intensity of pleasure from a romantic bond is determined by the same neurochemical circuit. In particular – by the μ-opioid receptor (MOR) gene – where one genetic polymorphism (one out of two possible phenotypes) codes for a higher density of opioid receptors in the forebrain. It then determines partner preference formation, pair bonding, and the intensity of attachment to a particular partner. How much we get addicted to monogamy and how much pleasure we get from seeing our partner’s face. Low density of MOR is typical for promiscuous behavior, high density – for monogamous. Here’s a research paper about prairie voles and meadow voles, perhaps the most thoroughly researched representatives of the two cases.

The characters of classic opera clearly have a high density of μ-opioid receptor in their brain! Otherwise they would just say: nah, this crap’s not worth it. However, many people around don’t seem to share the same characteristic – such as those who claim they’ve never been in love or had a crush on anyone. For such people, partner preference is weak – anyone can do.

The myth of forever

For better or worse, humans are not only driven by nature – but also by myths and narratives propagating in culture. The tragedy of human condition is that we use terms like forever in a world where everything is fleeting and ephemeral.

Indeed, the obvious downside of any addiction is that the tolerance to addictive substance builds up pretty quick. Ejaculation decreases in volume with repeated masturbation, cocaine brings less joy… Surely, chemically induced passion cannot last long. 

Bur humans have a complex relationship with temporality. Modern myths are all about ‘happily ever after’ – even though it’s hard to talk about any long-lastingness in a world that made novelty and variety evolutionary desirable.

Wagner explores this topic in his Der Fliegende Holländer (an early opera before he got obsessed with the greatness of Germany – indeed, who needs love when there’s the greatness of Germany!..). It’s pretty boring, but Wagner must have surely been fascinated by the idea of eternity: the Flying Dutchman who’s doomed to eternal damnation is roaming the seas, forever cursed. He can only be redeemed through love – and not just some love, but an eternal love and eternal loyalty. Eventually, he meets a captain’s daughter Senta who seems to be OK with such arrangement – although the redemption doesn’t end well. Of course! Lasting forever – that seems to us a necessary predicate to deem something worthy, valuable, truly meaningful. We require form each other words like eternity. But our words are cheap. The paradox is that nothing lasts that long – so we have to pretend that it does. Wedding vows, mortgages, career choices. Ditching this predicate is unbearable to a modern man.

The slow death of passion can be best illustrated by the mating behavior of marmoset monkeys: when monkeys meet new partners during the first 10 days they would have sex on average 3 times every half an hour. After 60 days in: they would have no sex at all. Their testosterone drops. Which seems to be an evolutionary adaptation to make monkeys direct their energy to a more productive end – such as caring for offsprings. Similarly, a phenomenon called the Coolidge effect observed in birds and mammals shows a slow decrease of sex drive (and a longer time until ejaculation) in a couple – until a new female is introduced. Repetition of stimuli causes habituation. Novel stimulus is needed for a release of dopamine in the brain reward system.

Eventual loss of interest and physical repulsion – this not the destiny we want to envision for Tristan and Iseult in the long run. No one would watch such a shitty opera. That’s why older myths are wiser than new ones. Their ‘happily ever after’ is only possible in afterlife. It’s illustrated well in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida – where the Egyptian prince is choosing between two women: one can offer him nothing but romantic interest, another – will give him everything including unlimited power over the kingdom of Egypt. He makes a poor choice. The final scene takes place inside a tomb where Radames and Aida sing about their impending death (not the best use of oxygen, to be honest). ‘O terra, addio; addio, valle di pianti… Farewell to earth, vale of tears’. Although the words are basic, Verdi made them sound powerful with the use of a harp and its ethereal strings that are creating a luminescent musical halo – as if Aida is already somewhere in heavenly existence, the transcendental realm of death – that’s the traditional ‘happily ever after’ that the modern world started to forget!

As David Halperin noted: ‘the genuine object of eros – whatever it is – does not belong to the same order of reality as the objects intended by the human appetites’. Right.

Is love a good thing?

A big shift in cultural narratives from the Ancient world to the modern one happened when we started to consider love a positive experience. In Ancient Greece, Plato called it nothing but ‘a force of evil’. A vicious spirit of irrational desire that possesses and overwhelms its victim. In Plato’s tripartite theory of a soul, human soul is a chariot driven by three horses: logos, eros, and thymos, where logos is always leading the way. Eros is just a black ugly horse on the left. What’s good about this obsession and madness?

From the perspective of neuroscience, the state of being in love is linked to both spiked levels of dopamine but also high levels of cortisol, the hormone of stress. In particular, through a chemical called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) that in turns triggers hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal (HPA) endocrine system in the body and produces severe anxiety. Although positive relationships are generally good for humans (they lower blood pressure, cholesterol, sustain memory and mental agility), the corresponding burst of cortisol can be unprecedented. As shown in experiments with voles, bonding seems to produce higher CRF right form the start: first in a dormant state – but activated when a vole is separated from its partner (or haven’t got a text message from him for too long!)

Eventually, positive motivation to maintain the pair bond (to feel joy) is substituted with negative (to avoid stress), and what used to feel like ecstasy, pleasure and euphoria starts causing anxiety, stress, and dysphoria. In plain words, love hijacks the brain’s reward system, until it becomes totally up to someone else to direct it, whether to a blissful or torturous chemical state. Like a gun put to one’s head and waiting to be fired. I think it’s pretty well illustrated in a famous performance by Marina Abramović, the Rest Energy, 1980 – the feeling of vulnerability and control represented by a bow and an arrow.

In Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, the main character, Prince Calaf, goes through the test of the cold Chinese princess Turandot. He correctly solves three riddles of hers, but she’s still reluctant to marry him and insists on his execution. Before accepting his destiny, Calaf offers the princess to guess his name: if she does – he will accept his death, if she doesn’t – he’ll marry her. During the night, the royal court is preparing the palace of Peking for both wedding and a funeral. How wise of a metaphor! The dance of oxytocin and cortisol that will either exhale you or destroy you.

A sentimental digression. Curiously, the narrative of revealing one’s name shows up in many instances and episodes of Western culture. His value declined when he offered his name… Emily Haines was signing. Why is that? Perhaps it’s a metaphor implying that it’s difficult to love someone after you know them completely. I don’t have scientific evidence here, but I think passion is largely based on extrapolation: filling out the missing parts with imaginary features. Being deeply infatuated with their ideas of one another. Knowing someone completely means knowing the most mundane and trivial parts in them, including one’s hidden thoughts never spoken aloud (very well portrayed in Greg Egan’s short story Closer) which would eventually destroy all fascination and mystery. That’s why Verdi and Dvořák preferred to KILL their characters and end the story at its peak before it went downhill.

A few workarounds

The cortisol kicks in, the dopamine wanes. Is it best to enjoy the serotonin ride while it lasts (as Michelle Gurevich was singing) – and finish the story before the plot becomes mundane? In case of an opera libretto – perhaps. However, the good news are that when it comes to human nature not everything’s too bad.

First, long-lastingness and stability is essentially determined by how much we seek novelty. The research shows that around 30-40% of all creatures (both two- and four- legged) engage in extra-pair copulation – mating with partners outside of their main social bond (presumably – for the increased genetic quality of the offsprings). This predisposition for seeking novelty is determined genetically too (as shown on identical twins). Gene that’s likely to code for seeking novelty and adventure is the key dopamine receptor D4. Polymorphism in this gene (called… DRD4 7R+ repeat allele) is correlated with promiscuity, as well as… ADHD, drug addiction, alcoholism, and gambling. That’s the gene that determines how much we seek the thrill of new stimuli: passion, new partners, and yield to lust and temptation. Some people simply find more pleasure in doing less exciting stuff – such as reading books. Prioritizing discipline over quick gratification.

Perhaps the best combination of traits to make happy long-term relationships possible is a high density of μ-opioid receptors coupled with the absence of 7R+ allele in the DRD4 gene. This way, one partner can theoretically bring repeated (although subdued with time) dopamine rewards without need for seeking novelty elsewhere. Maybe Dido didn’t have to kill herself and had to do a genetic test of Aeneas first. Maybe Pagliaccio had to test Nedda for ADHD before marrying her (at the cost of a dramatic plot).

Even though the mormoset monkeys lose their sex drive in 2 months, what follows after is lots of comfort and huddling. Their testosterone drops. So do their stress hormones. The journey ‘from being young lovers to an old married couple’ takes just 2 months. In humans it takes a bit longer. Perhaps it’s not a bad journey. Even though the fact that 1/3 of creatures engage in extra-pair copulation sounds upsetting, on the other hand – it also shows that the remaining 2/3 are comfortable with monogamous arrangements. Doing things that old people do. Such as going to opera. And bitterly contemplating the ridiculous nature of human condition.

As Denis de Rougemont wrote, ‘We who dwell on the Western world are destined to become more and more aware of the illusions on which we subsist. And possibly it is the job of philosophers, moralists and creators of ideal forms, simply to increase our self-awareness – the consciousness which is of course also a bad consciousness.’ It’s the job of scientists too.

Finally, why does it all even matter past the age of 15? The new myths appropriate for the 21st century should instill the sense of thrill not into cheesy love stories, but in the truly cool things – such as brain neurochemistry, reconciliation of gravity with the standard model of particle physics, breaking the Hayflick limit, production of experimental electronic music, space exploration, and maybe fighting for the independence of Hong Kong. This is the truly exciting stuff. Cultural narratives are repetitive and don’t reflect the state of the world (and human knowledge) properly. We need to stop romanticizing love. In light of scientific progress, romance is dead. Let’s start romanticizing brain research and quantum physics and write the operas of our lives about them.

After all, humans let each other down – photons and mesons don’t (at least – not until the Big Rip tears the fabric of this universe apart).

I write about cats and theories. About the blog »
×