Home Features Columnists It’s all in your mind: Love, lust or rationality?

It’s all in your mind: Love, lust or rationality?


In her latest column for Exepose Features, Alexandra McIrvine explores how emotions such as love and lust effect our rationality.

Human emotions are arguably the strongest things on earth; they cause extremes in us that lead to actions of love, hatred, jealousy or fear. Humans are the only species to have such fine tuned emotions that dictate our actions and rationality. Most other species usually act in innate ways controlled by evolution and adaptation, their actions not affected by these ‘emotions’. I’m sure most of you will relate to me when I write that I always find it easier to give others coherent, balanced advice on what to do in their personal emotional situations. When I am the one in the emotional situation I find it much harder to give myself or, for that matter, take anyone else’s sensible advice. This is because human emotions fog our rationality and cause us to act and think illogically.

Debatably the strongest of human emotions are love and lust. Consuming and completely overriding, love is often the cause of other emotions. It can be a positive force of joy, comfort and safety, as well as producing negative emotions which can be dangerous. Indeed, it is said that 25 per cent of homicides in America involve sexual partners or sexual rivals. Each year, some one million American women are followed and harassed by rejected lovers.

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Love and lust activate different parts of the striatum. This is a part of the brain that is responsible for a number of cognitive functions, most importantly to coordinate pathways of movement within the brain. It is the processes that control reward pathways that allow us to feel happiness and pleasure. The reward system is activated when an individual feels lust, experiences an orgasm, or, weirdly, when one is eating a yummy meal or pudding. Jim Pfaus, Professor of Psychology at the University of Concordia and researcher in the Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology, has found that desire was related to insula activation. The insula lies deep within the cerebral cortex and is accountable for giving significance to emotional states.

Pure lust is based on an individual’s drive for sexual satisfaction and pleasure and the attractiveness of another person. Indeed, W. H. Auden called lust “an intolerable neural itch.” It is an innate process also known as the libido, implicated by androgen levels (male sex hormones such as testosterone found in both genders), which are also the cause of aggression. A coincidental pair? No. The higher a man’s testosterone levels, the higher his libido, as testosterone levels rise, so do levels of aggression. Aggression has been shown to reduce rationality therefore indicating that lust has the same relationship and fogs our rational, balanced decisions.

Love can be intense euphoria, an emotional state in which hormones flood the body and fill you with powerful desire and passion. Adrenaline and norepinephrine make the heart race and the palms sweat, while dopamine generates feelings of bliss. Love activates a different part of the striatum. This part of the striatum is inherently known for giving the things that are paired with pleasure value and worth.

Photo Credit: Toni Blay via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Toni Blay via Compfight cc

Strangely, this is the same part of the striatum that is also active in drug addiction, which can be used to explain the addictive nature of love and the so-called ‘lover’s high’. Just as love and drug addiction show higher dopamine levels allowing us to feel reward and pleasure, in both there is also less activation in the amygdala, which is responsible for allowing us to feel fear. Studies of oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘love hormone’, show that it helps in pair bonding; it is released when a mother is nurturing her child, when two people hug and in sexual activity. It is responsible for triggering many social emotions as well; trust and attachment but also jealousy, suspicion and envy. By analysing blood samples from lovers who had been madly in love for six months, Dr Marazitti discovered that serotonin levels were similar to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder patients. This interesting similarity supports the idea of love and lust as irrational.

Like any addiction, the addictive agent can be dangerous causing craving and obsession which can cause astonishing irrationality. Love causes such single-minded absorption that individuals can become blind to the reality of a situation. When something gets in the way of the addictive love, people are led to uncharacteristic violence or irrational action.  Jealousy and a lack of trust can also lead to a dangerous outcome. Addiction in love is not always a bad or dangerous thing but influences monogamy and long-term relationships.

Overall we can see that love and lust do seriously affect our rational thought. Just look at the media, we are surrounded by satires, thrillers and soaps showing the dizzying extents people go to for love or sex. From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to shows like How I Met Your Mother we can see that love is a powerful and very beautiful thing but also a thing that causes us to act out of character and do things we wouldn’t usually even consider.

Alexandra McIrvine, Online Features Columnist

If you missed Alexandra McIrvine’s last column on myths of the grey matter, you can find it here. You can also find all our other Features columns here.

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