Charles Snowdon’s study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, involving cotton-top tamarins found that strong couples had higher levels of oxytocin, which corresponded with certain behaviours: men getting more sex and women getting more cuddling. I hate that it’s a total stereotype and yet there’s something very interesting in the idea that these couples gave partners what they needed. Neurobiology cements the idea that an active sex life is important to our relationships. In terms of maintaining a bond you have to have that dopamine release and sex is your fast track.
These sci-fi notions of controlling our urges with oxytocin sprays, pheromone potions and “love vaccines” are bunk given how nascent neurobiological studies are in this area, you write.
And yet people are clamouring for it – I know a lot of smart people who really believe that $90 pheromone cologne is doing something for them. Part of me says what’s the harm, except that chemicals such as oxytocin and vasopressin are also important to blood-vessel dilation and maternal behaviours. We may actually influence how our bodies make these things. I wouldn’t want to mess with that.
Ultimately, science still provides few answers about our lusty behaviours: It’s a stew of biology, context and individuality. “The study of something like love is very complicated and cannot be reduced simply to the neuronal level,” says Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Jill Goldstein.
At first it annoyed me: I wanted some actionable advice. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated not knowing more. Good science asks as many questions as it answers. This scientific work challenges many notions you find in self-help books, which promote one-size-fits-all answers to relationships and suggest you can’t be happy unless you follow those rules.
Are you with someone now?
I am not. I’m dating.
How does this stuff affect the way you look at your dates? Are they guinea pigs?
Right now I am much more likely to listen to what my gut is telling me about a person. In my 20s, I would have looked at someone and said, “But he’s got such a great job and he’s so good looking.” Now even if he’s great on paper, I listen to what my gut has to say.
This interview has been condensed and edited.