Tag Archives: evolution

Love is a Mental Illness: Part 2 – An Evolutionary Adaptation

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What is Love? vs. What is Love for?

Let’s take a brief look at Darwin’s theory of evolution. His theory suggests that traits and characteristics that arise from random genetic mutations are passed on from one generation to the next if these traits are advantageous to the survival of the species. In competitive environments, those who are better equipped to survive are more likely to produce offspring. Thus, beneficial traits will gradually appear with greater frequency, while useless or redundant traits will gradually diminish and eventually disappear. Memory, language, emotion and consciousness all serve some sort of function, resulting from the many millions of years of natural selection. All of these traits had to have some sort of beneficial advantage over those who did not possess these abilities or traits. The psychological state of mind that we call love should also, therefore, serve some kind of function to make us more adaptive.

Men and women are fundamentally different from one another. But please, before you whip out that feminist cudgel and start beating me with it, keep in mind that I’m speaking strictly in the sense of biological reproduction, not social roles in society. The optimal strategy for reproductive success is not the same for men as it is for women and so, some conflict of interest is inevitable. A male can increase his chances of reproductive success by simply having more sex and impregnating more women. A women’s reproductive success, on the other hand, is severely limited by biological factors. She has a very limited number of eggs compared to the amount of sperm men produce, and she cannot carry more than one fetus in the womb at a time (usually). In a hunter-gatherer society that humans lived in for most of their existence, resources were ridiculously scarce. Since women were going to be nearly incapacitated when she is carrying for a child, both in the womb and several years afterwards, she needed to be picky and choose that one mate that would give her the best odds of delivering and nurturing a healthy offspring.

Although, it may seem like men are less inclined to be faithful than females, the human race has evolved such that both males and females have to expend a great deal of energy on their young in order for them to survive. A pattern of promiscuous couplings and swift departures would have translated into less reproductive success for human males. Genes that produced promiscuous behavior would be strongly associated with infant mortality, which would translate into fewer offspring, and effectively diminishing them from the gene pool. In contrast, monogamous pairs that direct and expend their energy into one mate and one offspring have a higher likelihood of raising their vulnerable offspring into sexual maturity. Thus, natural selection has shaped us into a predominately monogamous species.

Love Helps Our Species Survive

Love organizes our behavior in such a way that compliments monogamous pairings, which, as mentioned before, increases the likelihood of reproductive success. One of the most prominent symptoms of people who are in love is obsession. The most obvious similarity between someone with OCD and people who have fallen in love is their inability to govern the contents of their own mind. Thoughts and images of loved ones enter our awareness and cannot be dismissed. Lovers ruminate, worrying excessively about the relationship not ‘working out,‘ or read into every little detail of their partner for hints of infidelity to the point of paranoia. But how is this adaptive?

We tend to view obsession in modern times as problematic and disruptive, it is actually an evolutionary advantage. Obsession works so that we do not easily forget our mate and makes us focus our energy and resources on that one person. Resource allocation is vital to both parties and if the male cannot remember which woman is carrying their progeny, well, he has other problems. But the bottom line is that if he cannot focus his energy on one mate and spreads his resources thin, the chances of him having a successful offspring are greatly reduced.

Sources:

Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness

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Is Love a Mental Illness?

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Falling In Love

The expression “falling in love” is ubiquitous in our culture. People say it all the time – I find it somewhat annoying. As a society, we seem to relish the experience of falling in love and I have no doubt that if you were to ask a tween or teenage girl if she wants to fall in love, they would unanimously say “yes.” It seems like a happy, romantic thing, but if you think about it, the phrase actually maintains a negative connotation. People usually “fall in” a hole, a rut, a trap, or a pile of poop. No one ever says I “fell in” a job, a friendship, a goal, or a pile of money. You are hired for a job. You build a friendship. You attain a goal. You dance in a pile of money. This suggests, quite accurately, that we fall in love like we fall over, by accident rather than by design.

So, logically, shouldn’t we try to avoid falling in love like trying to avoid driving into a pothole? Why would anyone welcome the agony and misery that love usually accompanies?  Are all humans either hopeless romantics or closet masochists?

Love vs. Limerence?

If love and limerence were twins, love would be the caring, loving and loyal twin, while limerence would be its unwanted doppelganger, anxious, obsessive, and irrational. It’s not unusual for love to start off as limerence but it would be wise to understand the subtle differences between them and act accordingly. Limerence is a similar state of mind like love, which comes from a romantic attraction to another person but he or she is preoccupied by an overwhelming obsessive need to have their feelings reciprocated. There is no established precondition for limerence, but research suggests that there is a high rate of coincidence between limerence, and dysfunctional attachment environments in childhood. What this means is that individuals who had parents that neglected or abused them would have a higher chance of experiencing limerence.

The symptoms of limerence are also very similar to drug addiction, probably because they both involve the same dopamine-using pleasure circuit of the brain. When you first start dating, you feel great pleasure being with your potential lover; similar to the first few times you use cocaine or heroin. However, you soon realize that you don’t feel the same high you once did when you first started the relationship. As the addiction to your partner progresses, tolerance, dependence, and cravings emerge, and the euphoria that was once felt gradually diminishes. It’s a double whammy. You need more and more attention from your partner to feel good but you derive less and less pleasure from it. Eventually, being together no longer produces much pleasure and the liking for your partner becomes a need for you to function normally. If you are a coffee addict like me, you know what I’m talking about. Days when I don’t drink coffee is almost always unproductive and I am much more irritable and tired.

Love As Humanity’s Greatest Illusion

The intense, euphoric pleasure that comes with falling in love is simultaneously accompanied by several distortions in the brain brain. When in love, there is heavy deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, the judgment center of the brain, as well as deactivation at the temporal poles and parietotemporal junction, regions that are involved in social cognition. These patterns of activation and deactivation in the brain resemble those who are diagnosed with, unsurprisingly, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Why Do We Love?

Like everything else, attraction, arousal, and love, are the products of millions of years of finely tuned biological engineering. And there’s really only one goal behind the engineering—to get you to have sex.

Falling and staying in love—the pair bonding that keeps a couple together long enough to have, raise, and care for children—almost certainly involves chemical processes that are a product of millions of years of evolution.

Across most animal species, male reproductive success hinges on mass distribution, and female reproductive success depends on careful selection and conservation. Sperm are small and continually replenished. Eggs, on the other hand, are large and precious. To put it more bluntly, sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive. Therefore, from an evolutionary standpoint, the best way for a male to increase his odds of passing his genes on is to distribute his sperm as widely as possible among fertile females. Females, on the other hand, have an interest in seeking partners who will give her the healthiest offspring so that the huge investment her body makes in pregnancy and child-rearing is worth it.

That’s the way it is in most species; they’re polygamous. But it would be foolish to believe in such genetic determinism. Knowing our biological weaknesses can help us overcome them and have fulfilling and long-lasting monogamous relationships. You could say, “Oh, it is just my DNA, and I am going to ignore it.” We all heard that line before and it’s a pathetic excuse. Biology is not destiny.

Genetic tendencies can influence our behavior, but we have the capacity to exercise control over our impulses. Similarly, you can choose to be a vegetarian for moral and ethical reasons but that smell of crispy bacon wafting in the air will still make you salivate just the same.

Conclusion

You want to know what the magic ingredient to a good relationship? Understanding. Realize that it may not be possible to completely escape evolution’s grasp. So what can we do? Be open and adapt. Understand what you like, and why you like it. Learning about the influences that millions of years of trial and error have played in our evolution as a species can bring us closer to breaking free from instincts and make informed choices. The more we understand how love works, the greater the opportunity we have to enjoy one of evolution’s greatest gifts.

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