In Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the protagonist Hamlet tells Ophelia: “Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move his aides, Doubt truth to be a liar, But, never doubt I love.” Here, Hamlet proclaims that anything could be doubted but his love. For centuries, philosophers and thinkers have deliberated on love; the greatest minds have tried to explain its nature; sonnets and symphonies have been inspired by this powerful emotion. Yet, not many have come close to answering the question, What is love?
Centuries later, in 1996, Dr. Helen Fisher, an American biological anthropologist and one of the brilliant minds of our time, made this question her life’s quest. To know what love is, and how it is different from affection and lust, Dr. Fisher took recourse to science and recorded her empirical findings in Why we love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. According to literary critic Liesl Schillinger, the book is “a thesis with startling ramifications.”
Dr. Fisher’s novel can be thought of as a rope, braided with three strands. The first one is lust, which according to the author is primordial and unpredictable. An innate human nature, the cravings for sexual gratifications are closely entwined with the euphoria of love. Yet, the book claims, lust and love are two different entities, and the distinction between love and lust is not a big mystery. “A few people in Western societies confuse the elation of romance with the longing for sexual release. People in far different cultures also easily distinguish between these feelings,” writes Fisher. Where people lose the thread is how romantic feelings trigger lust and whether it’s a one-way street, as seen in most cases.
The author says, dopamine, the love hormone, stimulates the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire. This ‘chemistry’ between dopamine and testosterone, explains why couples tend to become comfortable with each other’s bodies and emotions. Dr. Fisher’s explanation of the interplay of hormones and how they impact the course of a relationship is certainly an eye-opener for many.
Lust perhaps is a gift from nature that allows some people to keep the flame burning longer than others. But can it rekindle the lost spark? In other words, can lust trigger amour? Maybe in movies like Friends with Benefits it can, but in real life, lust rarely “ignites the furnace of love”. Again, it is the brain’s wiring that perhaps keeps the pathway between lust and love blocked. But Dr. Fisher writes that there are exceptions where casual intimacy leads to romantic feelings in people—where testosterone stimulates the release of dopamine. That is why relationships are often seen as a red flag by two people who don’t intend to take their friendship to another level.