As pessimistically defined by scientists and disillusioned romantics alike, we are biologically hard-wired to seek out a mate (or several) who possess the qualities required for reproduction and child-bearing, what we find “attractive”. Physically speaking this refers to any physical feature that will potentially give your potential offspring an evolutionary edge: traditionally “masculine” traits such as a strong jawline and physical fitness as indicated by muscle growth, and traditionally “feminine” traits such as bust-to-hips ratio, as well as more general features such as physical symmetry and a healthy appearance (indicating disease resistance). However, the physical doesn’t count for much if your partner isn’t willing to raise offspring with you. What people tend to forget is that the reproductive fitness algorithm also looks for a mate’s ability to provide and be a good partner. As Homo sapiens traded short development time for larger brains long ago, our children require a great deal longer to raise to adulthood, and so an emphasis on finding behaviour traits corresponding to trustworthiness, even temper, and compassion is key to finding a partner. Thus why we are attracted to kind, trustworthy people who are willing to sweat small stuff to form a relationship, regardless of whether we want to have their babies.
Many are familiar with the term affection, often preceded by “public display of”. While some prefer to shower their sweethearts with gifts and attention at the preset parameters of Valentines-Christmas-birthday-anniversaries, back in our grassland-dwelling pasts relationships were sealed with a gift. The male who could provide food for the group was seen as the desirable mate, and meals were often exchanged between males and females in return for protection and sexual gratification. Today, this extends to homemade dinners and boxes of chocolates between sweethearts. The basic idea stands that if you provide, you are loved, but the appeal doesn’t just lie in the receiving of gifts. “The thought that counts” is the phrase that pays. The message you send by making a homemade dinner or giving a gift is that you are thinking of them, that you have taken them into account as a part of your life, and this is where true affection occurs. Too many relationships turn sour because partners fail to think about each other’s needs or don’t communicate in a way that expresses affection, viewing their partner as a burden and not a blessing. If we take a page from our sabertooth tiger-killing ancestors, love will be stronger for it.
To get on someone’s nerves is often seen as a bad thing, yet it is often our nerve endings that lead us to our greatest pleasure. Arousal is seen as the state (or rather, the lead-up to the state) in which we are willing to engage in intercourse, most commonly following the stimulation of nerves and nerve endings. The most densely innervated parts of our bodies are the reproductive organs—the clitoris often rightfully holds the claim of having the most nerves at 8,000, that are in turn attached to 15,000 nerve fibres, compared to the penis glands which have around half the amount. However when it comes to sexually stimulating nerves, most are common in t he breasts, knees, lips and the anus, the latter of which shares the main pelvic nerve with your genitals, so as far as your body is concerned, it’s the same pleasure. While humans are the only animals other than dolphins to have sex for pleasure, the mere fact that sex is made to be pleasurable is paramount to our survival. Or to quote Cameron from House, “It’s violent. It’s ugly. It’s messy. And if God hadn’t made it unbelievably fun, the human race would have died out eons ago.”
Our desire for pleasure in the broadest definition, not constricted to desire for physical intimacy. “Pleasure” can be induced in the body in various ways, mostly through chemical means. Eating is pleasurable because of the pleasant-tasting chemicals in our food. Recreational drugs like marijuana, heroin and over-the-counter cigarettes can grow addictive because of the pleasurable chemical high it produces. Such highs are also released naturally during sexual activity. They are created by the hormones dopamine, responsible for giving the sense of “reward”, and serotonin, responsible for your sense of satisfaction. Both work together in tandem, serotonin rewarding payoff for the high and dopamine increasing your want for that high, to produce the feeling known as lust.
However, this pleasure-reward high can also lead to an addiction, and produces crippling withdrawal-like symptoms when the need is not fulfilled. Case in point: the crippling emotional loss that follows after a break-up. When dopamine levels are regularly high, the brain undergoes similar withdrawal symptoms to that of a cocaine addict, even exhibiting the same neurological pathway in the brain when viewed under MRI. Even more dopamine—as well as other excitatory hormones such as norepinephrine are produced than before—creates a “frustration attraction” that encourages you to reconcile with the source of your love-high. This explains why you tend to miss or love a person more once you’ve broken-up with them, or feel pangs of jealousy when we see the object of our desires with another person.
The airborne chemical secretions that ensure the way to someone’s heart is through their nose. While the sense of smell in Homo sapiens isn’t as keen as other mammals, it is keyed to our specific pheromones, making it a vital part of finding a mate since our evolutionary beginnings on the grasslands. Smell can tell us whether a person is genetically distinct enough from us to produce viable offspring; relatives smell foul to us to discourage inbreeding. Female’s sense of smell is strongest around ovulation, so she’ll be keyed to the pheromones that attract her. Pheromones even account for sexual orientation; a Swedish study found that male scents fire up the same arousal centres in the brain of gay males as they do in straight women. This was also found to be the case for female scents, arousing the same areas for both lesbians and straight males.
When we want to find out about someone or get information out of them, there are many methods to turn to; bribery, humiliation, blackmail. We mostly do this to our “enemies”, but what if we want to get information out of someone with whom we want to make a connection? In the case of love, the old adage of catching more flies with honey rings true. Flirtation is essentially investigation into a person in an attempt to see if you are compatible. You’re trying to find what you like about them; if there’s anything you have a mutual interest in on which you could build a relationship, and by talking with them and asking questions you gauge their reactions to determine whether or not it really is love at first awkward conversation. The evolutionary benefit is that it creates a safe situation where, while failure is to be expected, any missteps can be easily forgiven and you both can mutually part with no relationships in jeopardy—a great survival mechanism for a species that prides itself on socialisation. But the greater expectation is that if you seek, then you shall find, and if it worked for our ancestors, it can certainly work for you. So on that note, do you come here often…?