If you think that love is a feeling that is unique to human beings alone, get ready for a huge rethink. Human neurochemistry, especially those involving chemicals that cause feelings of love, bonding and attachment, are remarkably similar to that of other mammals.
Love is part of the brain’s preparation for us to create and raise an offspring who will be born helpless and therefore will need a great amount of caring for. The bond that is created between the parent and the child, between parents, and between the members of extended family, are responsible for adequate levels of caring for the child till he becomes an adult. These feeling of pleasure and satisfaction that such bonding rewards you with, ensures that they remain strong.
Love and the Vole
Prairie voles are a rodent species that are indigenous to the Midwestern plains of America. These rodents have been studied extensively by researchers who are trying to uncover the mysteries of love. After mating, prairie voles remain monogamous and raise their babies together. Vole mating and monogamy have been studied to death because of their similarities to human love. Researchers suggest that while the individual chemicals that are responsible for certain feelings may differ between voles and human, similar physiological processes occur in both species.
After a 24 hour period of mating, large doses of dopamine and oxytocin are released into the vole’s brain. Dopamine is the feel-good hormone (drug addicts feel the same dopamine rush after a shot of cocaine), and oxytocin creates intense feelings of attachment. The vole brain packed with oxytocin receptors in the reward centers, so the voles learn to associate the feeling of pleasure with the particular partner that it mated with. This is exactly what happens in human beings.
Evolutionary psychologists propose that since human the offspring is dependent on its parents for an extended period of time, “love” is the mechanism that encourages parents to remain together and bring up the young. The demands of child-rearing, especially in the beginning, are so intense that it requires the involvement of both the mother and the father. The mother, by being monogamous, proves the paternity of the child ensuring adequate paternal support during child-rearing.
But anthropologists have also suggested that humans are really a co-operative breeding species, which means that an offspring can be (and usually are) raised by a group of people rather than just the father and the mother. Then why do men and women love each other? Pair-bonding may just be because we learn to associate pleasure and satisfaction with the mate.
The scientific understanding of human love and attachment is sketchy at best. It is easy enough for scientists to administer large doses of oxytocin in prairie voles and watch them pair-bond without even mating, but similar experiments cannot be conducted on humans for obvious ethical reasons.
But if you consider the extent to which neurochemistry repeats itself in mammals, it seems to suggest that love is a necessary part of evolution. If our offspring were capable of fending for themselves immediately after birth, we would perhaps have evolved as a species with different mating and child rearing habits. Then we would perhaps choose partners indiscriminately, abandon children at birth and would be incapable of feeling love.