Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dopamine, The Cruel Bitch Mistress

If you'll open your books to where we left off the other day...we talking about the exquisite agony of The Crush. The crush, as you recall, is where we basically become dreamy fuckheads, walking ids powered by the hideous/delicious combo of single-mindedness, spaciness, magnanimity to your fellow humans ("Everyone is so awesome!"), hateable neediness, and general giddiness alternating with sudden despair--all set to the constant backdrop of the throb of unquenched sexual desire.

As reader can't keep anything to myself put it:
Crushes are torture, but the most delicious kind of torture. They make you realize what a masochist you really are. It's such a fun feeling though when your insides are squirming and you're smiling at random people like an idiot because you're thinking about them again and your jaw hurts from smiling so hard/much.
If you are suffering thusly right now, please know that you're not acting like such a pitiful lovesick idiot because you're inherently weak or out of your fucking head, but because cruel, cruel dopamine is totally screwing with you. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, "a kind of natural drug associated with the expectation of a reward that brings us pleasure," writes Sheril Kirshenbaum in The Science of Kissing. Dopamine can start fucking you up even during a first kiss. Writes Kirshenbaum,
Spiking during a passionate kiss, dopamine is responsible for the rush of elation and craving, and can also result in obsessive thoughts that many of us experience in association with a new romance--almost like an addiction.
I'm sorry, did she say "almost like"? Because dopamine is involved with stimulating the mesolimbic reward system (Mmmm, you like it when I talk to you all scientifically, don't you?), the part of the brain involved with virtually all of the addictive drugs. Wheee!
It primes us to make us want more, making us feel energized. Some people pumping lots of dopamine even lose their appetites, or feel that they cannot fall asleep--not surprisingly, the same 'symptoms' commonly described when "falling in love."
So maybe you're not in love, maybe you're just high on dopamine, you friggin' junkie. Which can go either way, depending if your ardor is returned. Writes the delightful Helen Fisher in Why We Love:
Because romantic love is such a euphoric "high," because this passion is exceedingly difficult to control, and because it produces craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotional and physical dependence, personality change, and loss of self-control, many psychologists regard love as an addiction--a positive addiction when your love is returned, a horribly negative fixation when your love is spurned and you can't let go.
If you don't get your love fix, well, it's not good. The suffering includes all kinds of sucky withdrawal symptoms like "depression, crying, spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability and chronic loneliness," reports Fisher.

Fisher continues, and I suspect she based her research solely on my diary entries from 1987: "Like all addicts, the lover then goes to unhealthy, humiliating, even physically dangerous lengths to procure their narcotic."

Which is not good, either. (Well, it's sorta good.)

Our takeaways from all this?  Hmmmmm, I guess, if you're going to get all hepped up on dopamine over someone, at least try to make sure that they might be someone who'll like you back. Which, you know, is totally easy. (Helpful hint: After years of painstaking research--ahem, Nobel committee--I can say with a fair degree of certainty that emotionally unavailable, meanish, and your basic garden-variety insane dudes are not, to my great surprise, good choices. You're welcome.)

Anyway, after awhile nature finally gives us a break. Because even a good dopamine ride can be, well, a bit much. I mean there's only so much time you can spend in a state of constant arousal, contemplating such uber-focused matters as the insanely lickable curve of a loved one's particularly enchanting body part. "Our biology places a limit on how long the 'high' conferred by dopamine can last," writes Kirshenbaum. "Studies have shown that levels of this intoxicating neurotransmitter decrease as we become more accustomed to a romantic partner, which might be why sexual desire tends to wane with the same person over time." (See also: the Coolidge Effect in "Our Genes Can Be Heartless Puppeteers").

On the other hand, it also doesn't seem reasonable, or at all fun, to avoid excessive, stupid, sexy, out-of-your-fucking-mind passion, for fear of getting the dopamine monkey on our backs. As "Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of The Female Orgasm" author Nicole Daedone's current, possibly grammatically problematic, Facebook status says, "Desire is there to be lived inside of."

I will await your tales from the front....


[addendum: As the unrelentingly brilliant and hilarious Betty Fokker points out below in the comments, the sweeter, more mellow high of attachment and bonding chemicals conveniently kick in just as the harsher high of the dopamine fades.]

[addendum 2: My dear friend Tricia sent me this bad-ass article on the fleetingness and horrible unsustainability of such passion.]

(photo: Marlo Broekmans, Photo extraite de la serie "Autoportraits")


Betty Fokker said...

Of course, it changes if it becomes lasting love. Apparently "Vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone, is another chemical that has been associated with the formation of long-term, monogamous relationships ... oxytocin and vasopressin interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which might explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows."
All I know is I am happy when Sweet Babou is near me ... and not happy when he is not near me, and fokking miserable if he has to leave for a few days if he goes to a conference or something.

Jill Hamilton said...

Ooh, Betty, I think it is I (me?) that likes it when you talk all sciencey. See new addendum above.

Betty Fokker said...

Come closer, and I'll tell you about the ecosystem ...

Red Shoes said...

I need a dopamine jump start...


Can't keep anything to myself said...

Yay I was quoted! Squeee!
Which is an amazing interjection by the way. Probably my new favorite word. Perfect word for talking about crushes and drugs.
"I saw my crush and I was like SQUEEEEE!"
"I had some crack and I was like SQUEEEE!"

Anonymous said...

I like this "crush" series. I read it and I'm like "SQUEEEEE!"

Eliza C. said...

I hate crushes. I quite honestly wish I was asexual sometimes as to be immune to the crush. Stupid dopamine.

Vesta Vayne said...

So I actually read this last night and didn't comment. But before going to bed I thought the whole lack of dopamine thing kinda sucks. Yes, yes, I know - slow burn. I married my crush, thankfully. But I like the dopamine high, and had sort of forgotten about it until I read the crush post.
Anyway, I had the most bizarre dreams last night, which I won't go into, but it was definitely from reading this post.

in bed with married women said...

Betty--Oh yeah, darlin', you KNOW what i like.
Red Shoes--I had the idea of dopamine on demand, like Dopamine Chewables or something. Does this exist? ps hope you get your fix.
Can't keep anything to myself--the best "squee" of all times is in "the sound of music" after liesl gets kissed out in the gazebo by that jerky "older and wiser" rolf. her response, natch: "squeeeeee!"
Doug Stephens--Is it wrong that i'm sort of into you going "squee!"?
Eliza C.--Yes. I was listening to the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for My Man" and was so struck by parallels between "love" and being a heroin junkie. "I'm feeling good, I'm feeling oh so fine/Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time."
Vesta Vayne--I LOVE that you got strange torrid dreams from the post. My work here is done!

Anonymous said...

Tell me how to make it stop.
I've been married for 7 years now to a man who, 7 years before that was a crazy crush. He's a great guy, wonderful father to our little girl. All that.
Then a dude came along who, with a GLANCE turned me inside out. We've flirted, we've talked, and he's told me I do the same to him. His integrity (dammit!) will not allow him to go any further with me, as he knows I'm married with a wee one. But, due to where I work and where said dude shops, I still see him and we still chit chat.
It is driving me mad, making me seriously wonder if I still love my husband, getting seriously pissed off that I cannot work up passionate emotions for husband like I have for the dude, losing weight because I don't want to eat, etc.
WTF am I supposed to do???
Going Crazy Here

Anonymous said...

omg PLEASE tell me about the ecosystem. and more neurotransmitters.

it makes me sooo HAWT.
in a good, sticky-like way.

N/A said...

I love the rush of dopamine rush like any adult... but I know I prefer the oxytoxcin bonding high, with spikes of dopamine once in awhile. Probably around year 1 of a good relationship.

Mean, emotionally unavailable men should Fuck off permanently to Douchebag Island. Wonderful article as usual, Jill!

Jill Hamilton said...

Jean, I love that you have found this exact sweet spot of love/lust.

And in completely unrelated news, this missive came in from Cathya:

Don't know if I ever told you about her, but my friend Ethlie wrote a book called Love Addict

And has a blog about love and sex addiction

Loved your new post! Thought you might like to check out Ethlie's work!

Hope you're groovy! xoxo

Anonymous said...

"Love / hate" is the perfect way to describe it.
The relationship ended some time ago, most days I think I'm over it. Ours was a long distance relationship and those are difficult to maintain.
She gave me a small vial of the perfume she wore. I keep it on the nightstand. When a sniff it, I feel her hair on my face, her body in my arms, her lips on my ear. I'm blessed and cursed simultaneously.
I sniff the vial approximately once each week. Someday maybe I'll need it just once a month.

in bed with married women said...

Anonymous, that is so, fucking poetic and horrible and beautiful.

Yogi said...

And falling in love is like falling in battle...

in bed with married women said...

Yogi, word xo

Anonymous said...

I recently had a crush and as a married individual experienced many of the symptoms in your article. I was elated and sad at the same time. Elated because I found someone I had so much in common with and sad because that individual was not my spouse. This article helped put all of what I went through into perspective. Thank you. It also reminded me of a movie titled "Love and Other Drugs".

Yogi said...

Has anyone else here read Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha's Sex at Dawn? Their very plausible theory of polyamory moves this discussion hard to one side: for thousands of years, we may very well have fallen in love repeatedly with several people in our tribe over our lifetime. That dopamine rush may have propelled our sharing instincts, because we shared everything, EVERYthing.

And everyone.

in bed with married women said...

Yogi: blew my fucking mind. shown here:

anonymous: love and other drugs--now on my list! thanks!

Yogi said...

@IBWMW: Thanks for the link to the S@D post. Wonderful commenters all.