Phenethylamine (fiːnaɪlˌɛθɪlˌəˈmiːn). You may not have heard of it, but you’ve drunk it. At least, your brain has. It goes by the nickname,“the infatuation drug.” It was secreted into your brain in Middle School when that one girl or guy walked into class, took a seat two rows down and to your left, and you didn’t hear another word the teacher said. You were in love. This person was perfect. Life with this person by your side would be the definition of bliss every day; that was clear. The only thing unclear was how to get from “two rows down and to the left” to “down the aisle and into your cool loft apartment with your two perfect kids.” Remember her or him? You may not remember their name, but now you know their nickname: “Phenethylamine.” Or more accurately—their real name.
Phenethylamine is an hallucinogen. And a nomadic one (not romantic… nomadic). It distorts reality, such that what you see is not real. Don’t get me wrong; that person in seventh grade was cute; real cute! But you’re now old enough to know they also had flaws. (Every person has flaws because our strengths are our weaknesses; a person with no weaknesses is a person with no strengths.) But you didn’t see those flaws; there wasn’t a weakness within fifty rows of that seventh grade chair. That is, until Phenethylamine moved on; and it always does. It has a shelf-life of a few weeks to a maximum of two years. If your dream-date’s facade is terribly misleading, your Phenethylamine “high” might last only as long as your first conversation.
But there’s good news. In fact, much better news. The promiscuity of Phenethylamine is trumped by the faithful permanence of the bond of Oxytocin. If Phenethylamine is the chemical reaction behind “puppy Love,” Oxytocin is the chemical reaction behind real love. It’s the feel-good chemical that washes over the brain when we connect with another human being in a way that feels secure, safe, comforting, loving, nurturing, and accepting. It says, “I want to be with this person” not because one has fallen in love with a hallucination, but because one has experienced authentic, safe, caring human connection. In that sense, it is a much more reliable guide to a good mate. After all, how we make one another feel will go a lot further in a relationship than pretty eyes and skin-tight jeans. Oxytocin also trumps—in the area of worthy criteria on which to build a relationship—another brain chemical that can lead us into trouble: Dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get what we want. It is a motivator. It is an adrenaline junkie that loves pursuit; it’s a fan of the hunt—whether the reward of the hunt is “to get the girl” (or guy), or win the tournament, or seal the business deal, or even find the next high (all addictions are ultimately Dopamine addictions; the pleasureful reward of getting what one craves rides in on a wave of Dopamine). But there could be volumes written on the woes of following Dopamine into a relationship. That’s why sex is a terrible way to start a relationship. A relationship motivated by and rewarded by a cerebral Dopamine bath is a shallow and uncertain relationship. In fact, speaking of books on Dopamine disasters, there is a chapter of that “book” as old as the Bible. This relational-Dopamine-letdown is behind the tragic story in chapter thirteen of 2nd Samuel, of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. He had long nurtured an obsession with “having her.” Once he “had her” (by force), “he despised her.” His Dopamine satisfied, he was not interested in a loving relationship; he was off to the next conquest. And for Tamar? What chemical washed over her brain? Certainly not Oxytocin; not even Dopamine—but Cortisol—released by the hypothalamus in response to threat, fear, and danger. Thus, the Dopamine-fueled dream of the sexual conquerer was the Cortisol-fueled living nightmare of the conquered.
But I said there was good news, didn’t I? Back to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is relationship superglue. It is the brain’s bonding chemical. It is that which creates bonding between mother and newborn, as the infant is placed on the mother’s bare belly and suckles for the first time. This becomes the child’s first experience outside the womb of caring, comfort, safety, acceptance, belonging and love… the first building block of a chemically-reinforced association of relationships with safe reliability. The more positive, pure, safe connections a person has throughout life—especially in early life—the more capacity one will have for secure attachments, or safe, trusting relationships. Oxytocin is released in moments ranging from plutonic to romantic. It shows up when we’ve been “tended or befriended.” It is secreted when a human interaction has felt good—safe, accepting, nurturing, and comforting. It’s in the cradled lullaby; the nonsexual touch of a friend; a good massage; a hug when we’re sobbing; holding someone’s hand when afraid; snuggling with a parent or spouse; the empathy we see in the tear-rimmed eyes of someone who has listened—really listened—to our story; it’s as public and low-level as holding candles in a Christmas Eve service, and as private and intense as front-to-front sexual orgasm in a relationship of committed love. And that committed love is, again, the difference between the secretion of shallow and short-lived Dopamine, or a Phenethylamine hallucination.
So, the heart bone is indeed connected to the brain bone, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways; ways that help, heal and protect us, and ways that hinder, wound, and damage us. And that’s the gift—and curse—of relationships. Our hearts are vulnerable; our brains are vulnerable; relationships are vulnerable. Love, trust, and commitment are vulnerable. But where would we be without that relational vulnerability? Alone. We’d be alone. And that is the most wounding existence of all. The alternative is to be for others a safe, accepting, respectful, comforting, loving, protective presence and—if we choose wisely—experiencing the same from someone else.