Love does things to a person -- you know this well if you've been in love, or within a hundred feet of a friend who is. Frilly-collared poets would have you believe that it's all part of love's magical spell, but luckily science has weighed in on the subject to let us know that love triggers all sorts of weird chemical and physical changes inside our brains and bodies. And once you know about these changes, it actually explains a lot ...
We all have that one friend who dates the biggest tool in the universe and seems completely oblivious to how obviously terrible that person is (some of us have probably even been that friend). No matter how rude, obnoxious, drunken, or unfaithful their partner is, your friend will insist, "No, she's really nice when we're at home" or "Oh, he's just joking around, his dick isn't really made of tyrannosaurus bone," as if they are somehow incapable of seeing the same braying asshole we are. As it turns out, that is precisely what is happening -- they actually cannot see what a crusty dipshit their partner is.
"You're blinded by love ... and his meth smoke!"
There is a specific region in the human brain that is responsible for handling judgment, and under normal circumstances, it lights up like the flaming runway at the end of Die Hard 2 when we're presented with a new situation that requires immediate evaluation, such as meeting somebody for the first time or trying to figure out whether we like the changes to the TGI Fridays menu or if we should flip the table over and go to IHOP instead. We are judgmental creatures by nature, and we are eager to criticize. However, when we're infatuated with something, that judgment-casting region of our brains goes completely dark like a rolling blackout.
We actually become physically incapable of detecting the flaws in the things we love. Apparently, human biology believes it necessary to throw the blinders on in order for our species to survive -- we have a biological imperative to lower our standards.
If unicorns weren't so high and mighty, they'd still be around today.
There is another phenomenon related to this love-blindness called the halo effect, and amazingly it has nothing to do with eliminating your dating competition with a pair of dual-wielded needlers. The halo effect refers to our habit of extending one positive quality that a person possesses to the rest of their character, basically giving us an excuse to like that person. When your friend laughs at the hot girl's terrible joke, he's not faking it -- his brain is telling him, "This person has what you look for in a mating partner, therefore from now on, every little thing she does is magic."
When choosing a partner, we tend to look for somebody with a personality and set of interests closely resembling our own (please note: "fabulous abs" qualifies as a set of interests). As appealing as a torrid love affair with the barista at Starbucks might seem, the relationship is more or less doomed from the start, because at the end of the day you don't know anything about that person, and exposing your genitals in the proximity of scalding coffee is a terrible icebreaker. Conventional wisdom dictates that it's better to find a match, because that way you and your partner are less likely to bore and/or annoy the shit out of each other.
"Basically, Lady Constance, your marrying the chauffeur would bring disgrace and disaster to this home."
However, if the timeless ballad of Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat has taught us anything, it's that certain people are only attracted to their complete opposites. It turns out this isn't just a product of terrible decision-making -- there's a neurochemical process at work here that they can do absolutely nothing about it.
Let's talk about hormones again for a second. In many cases, the "opposites attract" phenomenon involves an estrogen-dominant personality being drawn to a testosterone-dominant one, and vice versa. For instance, a nurturing person might be more attracted to an "alpha male" (read: asshole), and a dominant person might be helplessly smitten with a reserved, more submissive person. According to psychologists, these people are unconsciously trying to balance out the deficiencies in their own personalities and form a complementary relationship, sort of like yin and yang, or Tango and Cash.
Which is why their love scene was so passionate but their romance was ultimately fleeting.
There's another kind of opposite-attraction that is so specific, scientists have actually gotten together and named it like the class hamster. It's called the precarious couple effect, and it refers to the pairing of a loud, highly critical woman with a shy, introverted man. Unsurprisingly, the relationships resulting from these pairings are deeply unfulfilling for both parties, in an "I'd rather grundle punch a crocodile than look at my partner's stupid horrible face for one more second" sort of way. So why in the hell do these people get together in the first place?
Well, because in the early stage of a relationship, the wholly incompatible personalities seem appealing in that yin-yang way we discussed above. For example, a man who doesn't talk a lot would find the prospect of an outspoken girlfriend attractive, because her presence would make him feel more comfortable in social situations -- if she's doing all the talking, he doesn't have to. Conversely, a woman who loves to talk would be equally attracted to a man who listens patiently and never tries to interrupt. It is only when they finally start dating that they begin to notice how much they cannot stand each other -- the woman's vocally critical nature grates on the verbally passive man, and his yielding spinelessness drives her fucking insane.
For those of you who were socially awkward in your teens or 20s, let us ask you something: After you finally got your first girlfriend or boyfriend, how many of you immediately found it much easier to flirt with others? It's like there's this lifelong dry spell, and suddenly it ends all at once. It may even seem like a cruel Catch-22 -- for the first time, you have all of these strangers lunging for your junk, but now you're in a relationship and can't reciprocate.
"Honey, she followed me home from Home Depot. Can we keep her?"
The obvious answer would be that finally getting some action gave you confidence, and confidence is always attractive. But there's a deeper, more scientific answer.
It's because when we're dating someone we're happy with, our bodies release significant amounts of oxytocin, the main hormone involved in the chemical process of love. One of the things oxytocin does is make us more empathetic toward others, which in turn makes us more likely to properly interpret even the subtlest social cues, such as the casual folding of the arms signaling that your date is ready to go home, or the gentle raising of an eyebrow indicating that the bathroom drapes are not for wiping.
And yes, it is another of the body's cruel paradoxes -- you don't get the chemicals that attract partners until after you've attracted a partner.
Catherine Yeulet /Photos.com
And if your relationship sucks, you never get them at all.
Oxytocin actually has enough of an effect that scientists feel it could potentially be used to help treat severe social disorders such as autism. However, only people who were previously terrible at navigating social situations experience any benefit. If you were already awesome at meeting people and making friends, being in a healthy, intimate relationship isn't going to make you any better at recruiting teammates on trivia night. So you might as well break up with that person, because it's not like they're getting you any closer to winning that free plate of cheese fries at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Since time immemorial, love has been associated with sweet things. It's a safe assumption that poetry lyrics about love being sweet as honey (the song "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies further elaborates that the girl in question is Archie's "candy girl") exist because love and the sensation of sweetness are two pleasant things, and pop musicians are bad at writing. We also use the words "honey," "sweetie," and "sugar" as terms of endearment. Candy makes us feel good; so good, in fact, that we will hide in a closet or behind a desk to shovel handfuls of it into our mouths, because we know it's a shameful display, but we want it so badly that we don't care. The same can be said of sex.
If sex takes your teeth, you may be doing it wrong ... or right, depending on your mileage.
Well, some researchers in Singapore wanted to see if there was any science behind this age-old association. They collected a bunch of college students and asked them all to write essays -- one group was asked to write about a personal experience with romance, another group was asked to write about jealousy, and the third group was allowed to write about whatever they felt like (presumably the scientists gave them coloring books and told them to go wait in the car). Afterward, they gave all of the students some bittersweet chocolates and asked them to rate the candy's sweetness. Across the board, the students who wrote about their own personal love stories ranked the candies as tasting sweeter than people in the other two groups, whose assigned topics seemed to have no effect.
The researchers then collected an entirely new group of students and ran the same experiment (a phrase here meaning "forced a bunch of teenagers to write an essay on what was presumably a Saturday"), but this time, instead of chocolate, they asked the students to taste test a new brand of flavored water. It was actually regular bottled water, but the researchers told the participants that it was mixed with some special sweetener, and they asked each student to rate the water's sweetness. Once again, those people still mooncalfing over their romantic essays ranked the water's sweetness higher than the other two groups, even though in reality it was just plain old Aquafina.
Because they'd drunk more. Romance cost them precious fluids.
So why the hell does this happen? Simple: The brain is an incredible organ capable of doing very complex operations, but it is also embarrassingly easy to confuse. You see, thinking about love and romance activates the anticipation and reward region of the brain, which we assume shows up in neon pastels on an MRI. The same region is also activated when we taste sugar.
When we think about love and/or nude bootyness, the brain sends out "sweetness sensations," regardless of whether we're eating anything, or if whatever is in our mouths is sweet or not. Consequently, we end up associating love and sweetness simply because they live in the same neighborhood of our skull meat. It's kind of like grape soda -- it doesn't actually taste anything like grape, but it is sweet and delicious, so forever more that flavor is grape to us. Really, if you're going to take one thing away from this, it is that love is like grape soda.
You already know that when two people are in love, they gradually begin to adjust their habits to accommodate each other, because otherwise they'd both just continue pursuing their own interests and doing what they enjoy, and that would be chaos. Some of these adjustments are conscious, such as scaling back your daily intake of pizzeria Pringles in order to preserve both your marriage and your blood sugar, and some are unconscious.
Sometimes, their periods sync up. Not all couples experience this.
And some are downright bizarre.
For example, when a man is in love with a woman, he will automatically walk slower when he's with her to match her shorter stride, but won't do the same for a female he's merely friends with. "But Cracked," you say, "that's just common courtesy! What kind of a dick makes his girl chase him through the park?" Wait, it gets weirder.
Another study took 32 different couples and had them lie down within a few feet of each other while hooked up to heart and respiratory monitors. The study found that the two people would begin breathing and beating their freaking hearts in sync, which suddenly makes every Sting song make total sense. Heartbeats are a physiological response that cannot be consciously controlled, let alone detected from across a room -- being in love gives us not only super senses, but the power to slow our own circulatory system like a Shaolin monk. And according to the researchers' results, women are more adept at doing this than men, which is another way of saying that all women are superhuman mystics.
Where do you think Beyonce got the beat for "Crazy in Love"?
Wait, there's more! The mad scientist that is human biology will actually adjust the level of hormones swirling throughout your innards -- specifically, the amount of testosterone -- to match your partner.
You see, nature wants one thing, which is for us to gleefully spread our DNA with the same enthusiasm as a toddler smearing peanut butter on every item in your home entertainment center. And testosterone governs sexual development and reproduction. So, when a heterosexual couple is romantically involved, the woman's testosterone levels will actually increase, whereas the man's will subtly decrease. The goal, essentially, is to make women more manly and men more feminine. It doesn't go as far as sprouting lumberjack beards on ladies' faces or turning men into Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior. It's more about balancing the two partners out on common ground.
Until their lovemaking looks like twincest.
The testosterone levels begin to go back to normal as the relationship evolves. According to evolutionary theorists, this is because women start to focus on the upbringing of the children who inevitably resulted from the extended nudity festival, and thus their testosterone (and sexual desire) decreases. Meanwhile, men's testosterone goes back up to normal, which means they actually want to have sex more. It's almost a comedy routine, sort of like The Odd Couple, if Walter Matthau spent the entire time leering suggestively at Jack Lemmon.
Do you have a pop culture muse? Channel it in our T-shirt latest contest and you could win $500.
Related Reading: Fuck love songs, have a like song instead. Oh and by the way, if you've been looking for a soul mate you've been sabotaging your own love life. That's just one of the many ways in which how we define love itself is wrong.