Bodies in love

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005
Join Margi Clarke to investigate the science of love

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Margi Clarke

For Margi Clarke nothing can beat that intoxicating feeling of love, that madness that means we don’t care whether we make a show of ourselves in public. She should know, she claims she falls in and out of love all the time! But she wants to know just what happens to our bodies when we fall in love – is a just a cruel joke of nature designed to ensure the continuation of the species? Ever Wondered asks her to turn love detective to find out…

Margi starts with a trip to the surgery of endocrinologist Dr Jean Ginsberg - an expert in the glands that secrete hormones in our bodies...

Dr Jean Ginsburg At the time of this interview Dr Jean Ginsburg was a consultant endrocrinologist at the Royal Free Hosiptal in London.

Margi : When we fall in love – why do we blush?

Dr Ginsberg : It’s actually quite complicated. MRI scans of the brain have shown that there’s more activity in those parts of the brain that are concerned with pleasure and arousal. That’s the result of two neurotransmitter hormones – noradrenaline and dopamine. There are other hormones involved as well – oxytocin and vasopressin, which is secreted from the posterior part of the pituitary. These cause your blood pressure to go up and the blood flow increases to your cheeks – and that’s why you blush.

Margi : Is blushing nature’s way of showing our embarrassment or our passion?

Dr Ginsberg : Both. It’s a part of a stress response. If it’s really severe stress then it brings in hormones called endorphins – which may be responsible for some of the more pleasurable things after you’ve blushed…like that feeling of tingling down in your toes. When you’re very much stressed – as in battle, or when you’re running a marathon – it’s the release of endorphins which stops you feeling any pain.

Margi : So are our brains the sexiest parts of our bodies?

Dr Ginsberg : I’m sure they are - people just don’t realise that the brain is involved in an awful lot of what you do, even what you consider to be reflex activities.

We all like to smell nice for our other half. But what role does perfume really play in the chemical reaction that is love? Margi meets organic chemist Dr David Kelly to find out more…

Dr David Kelly Dr Kelly : The traditional view is that perfume is additional decoration – like lipstick or make-up. There’s another view that says women wear perfume because it is made of chemicals that are similar to the odour of a man - it’s been found that the chemicals emitted from the armpits of men make women feel calmer and more relaxed. So perfume imitates what occurs naturally in nature.

Margi : How is that ?

Dr Kelly : Pheromones, or chemicals with a structure similar to pheromones, are used as the base note in all perfumes. Pheromones are volatile chemicals emitted by living organisms to send messages to individuals of the same species.

All these chemicals are sending Margi crazy! She goes to meet psychiatrist Dr Tonmoy Sharma to find out about his research into why the brain is really the love muscle...

Dr Tonmoy Sharma Dr Tonmoy Sharma leads the research group based at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and is an expert on the relationship between brain physiology and psychiatric disorders

Dr Sharma : Everyone thinks that the heart is the most important organ when it comes to love. Actually, as Dr Jean Ginsberg said ealier, it’s the brain. At the moment, we’re investigating which parts of a man’s brain respond to different kinds of images – be they erotic, romantic or neutral. By monitoring miniscule changes in blood flow around the brain we can see how the brain reacts when it sees these different images.

Brain scans Obviously each man’s reaction is different, but as a group we expect to see the same areas of the brain lighting up when the men see erotic images, romantic images or even fearful images. We have found that it’s the older parts of the brain that light up in response to erotic images. This is first time we’ve had the chance to look at mapping our emotions, those feelings, which make us what we are, on to the brain. The next step is to map the emotions on to the female brain – and perhaps dispel those stereotypes that it is men who are more lustful or sexual.

If you would like to find out more about about the chemistry of attraction here are some suggestions you could follow up :

Further reading

Love Scents: How Your Natural Pheromones Influence Your Relationships, Your Moods, and Who You Love
Michelle Kodis, EP Dutton

Smell: The Secret Seducer
PA Vroon, Farrar Straus & Giroux

The Chemistry of Fragances
David Pybus, Spinger Verlag

Scents & Scentuality
Valerie Ann Worwood, New World Library


BBC News on Tonmoy Sharma and his work

Also on this site: You can join Tara Palmer-Tomkinson as she asks are we all love junkies? or find out what Plato made of L-O-V-E

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what courses The Open University has to offer.



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