Falling in Love & Thirty-Six Questions

“First best is falling in love. Second best is being in love.”-Maya Angelou

The Article | To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This

To me, the idea that any two people can fall in love under the right conditions has the same sort of appeal as saying you can fit a square peg can fit into a round hole if you jam it hard enough. Maybe it’ll work, but it will probably look lopsided and you might break something in the process. Frankly, the potential for universal romantic love sounds like a social experiment best positioned for success under apocalyptic, last two people standing, Lost or Walking Dead scenarios.

So when a friend asked me my thoughts on the viral New York Times article To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do ThisI scoffed.

The original experiment asked two heterosexual strangers to sit face-to-face while answering a series of 36 questions. The questions begin superficially enough, providing insight into their dream dinner guest or perfect day, but progress in vulnerability until the partners are divulging intensely intimate thoughts, desires, and fears. I mean, who has a good answer to, “Of the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing?” As a cringeworthy finale, the couple must stare into the others eyes for a squeamishly long, long four minutes.

This set of questions, the article claims, sets up conditions to “fall in love with anyone.”

I’ve spent my fair share of time in laboratories — they are black holes for all things sexy, arousing, and romantically stimulating. Despite conditions not conducive to long gazes, intimacy, or lunge-across-the-lab-bench passion, the couple from the original study and the follow-up article were married within six months. To this, I reacted with #facepalm. Clearly, I was working in the wrong lab.

Revenge of the nerds at its finest, this article set pop science news ablaze. Scientists have discovered the formula for love! An equation that allows two strangers to spontaneously, albeit somewhat artificially, fall in love. Smells like bad science to me.

But eventually my knee-jerk skepticism gave way to curiosity. Is it really impossible for two strangers to fall in love under the right conditions? Given the right temperature, moisture, and substrate, a virus can thrive in unlikely conditions. Can love be that much different?

True, the 36 questions cleverly create ideal conditions to rapidly grow the respect, trust, and admiration necessary to fall in love.  However, emotionally and physiologically, there is a world of difference between falling in love and being in love. Falling in love doesn’t guarantee long-term attachment. Sort of like giving a man a fish instead of teaching him to fish, I wondered if these questions were sufficient to keep the love going once the experiment ended.

The Distinction | Falling in Love Vs. Being in Love

Falling in Love: The hot and heavy, head over heels, wear makeup to bed phase…

The 36 questions accelerate and encourage this process brilliantly. During the passionate phase of exploring a new partner, the stage of infatuation, we become addicted to the process. The novelty of a new partner and the exciting prospect of potential love sends the pleasure chemical dopamine surging through our reward circuitry. In fact, the brain of someone in the early stages of a relationship looks similar to the brain of a drug addict — we want more, and more, and more please. The reward is worth the risk, and I’ll think about the consequences later.

This early stage of the relationship also amps up the hormone norepinephrine. Similar to adrenaline, norepinephrine drives up our heart rate “My heart skipped a beat,” focuses attention “I see you and only you,” and promotes goal-oriented behavior “I want you. Now.”

While falling fast sends some parts of the brain into overdrive, it paralyzes others. Cue dumb love. The neurotransmitter most commonly associated with happiness, serotonin, dips when we are infatuated. As an intriguing parallel, the brains of individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder also show decreased levels of serotonin. Indeed, the obsession, insecurity, and anxiety seen in OCD patients with low serotonin are also found in the love sick. Why isn’t he calling me? Was that one too many emoticons? Why is he asking to split the bill? Okay, that might be a valid concern…

To push the blind love one step further, activation in regions like the prefrontal cortex (higher reasoning) and amygdala (threat detection) plummets when we’re obsessed with our hot new thing, causing uncharacteristic acts of risk taking, impulsivity, and poor judgement. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Being in Love: The let’s grow old, in it for the long run, I’ll wash your socks phase…

This is what the study misses. This is the piece not guaranteed. This is when you’re attached. You’re in it. You know their habits, their pressure points, their drunken behavior — and you’re cool with it.

If infatuation is primarily driven by dopamine, commitment is brought to you by oxytocin. A powerful little hormone, oxytocin is the essential ingredient that ties monogamous rodents to their fuzzy mate. It’s released during everything from cuddling to orgasm — oxytocin glues me to you.

Once a couple settles into a long-term love relationship, the ventral pallidum, an area of the brain rich in oxytocin and vasopressin (also released in the brain during sex) comes online. Combined, oxytocin and vasopressin lay foundations for mate-bonding neural pathways. Oxytocin is a natural painkiller, which is make or break when you’re identifying a partner with whom you’ll navigate the ups and downs, the richer or poorer moments of life. Recent studies have found that oxytocin is not only correlated with longevity of relationships, but couples high in oxytocin are more likely to laugh, touch, finish each other’s sentences, express generosity and trust, and accurately identify emotion in facial expressions.

In this phase, the addiction element of the relationship wanes, and the habitual, comforting, attachment phase kicks in. While the passion might fade, you sink into something sustainable. Like a one glass of wine a night habit.

The Critique | Science Says No

Based on the distinction between falling and being in love, what does science say about the possibility of committed attachment following these 36 questions? Does the “love” created in a laboratory guarantee a long-term outcome? Well, it doesn’t look hopeful…

Some of us aren’t biologically designed to be in love.

Most of us can fall in love, but not all of us are wired for long-term love. Researcher Hasse Walum found that we’re not all created equal when it comes to oxytocin. Individuals with a variant of the oxytocin gene, causing either low oxytocin output or receptor insensitivity, aren’t as close to their partners, don’t seek as much physical proximity, are less desirous of physical contact, show less affection, and have more marital issues.

We know these people — the ones who crave the drama, excitement, and novelty of falling in love but can’t seem to stay in love. Maybe these people aren’t assholes, but rather, their biology is preventing them “latching on.” The 36 questions can set up the first half of the process, but there’s no guarantee of long-term attachment.

You might experience withdrawal… literally.

The effects of early love in the brain mimics that of narcotics. A brain craving love is remarkably primitive, resembling a brain that is hungry, thirsty, or on drugs. When satiated, the lover feels happiness and euphoria, pleasure and reward, productivity and buzzing positivity. However, when this intoxication is removed, we spiral downward. We become depressed, lethargic, and seek alternative outlets to reach the same high. This process is so tied to our neurobiology, researchers have found that if they artificially stimulate areas of the brain engaged in love and addiction, they can potentially “cure” patients undergoing heartbreak. These questions force participants to step past their boundaries so quickly and easily, that a crash and burn is almost guaranteed.

Not science, but my opinion – you give it all away upfront. 

You spend a night with a perfect stranger, only to find you have nothing to talk about the next morning. Like this study, you peaked too soon. You shared a once in a lifetime rush that you can never replicate again. You excavated this fascinating creature to their depths and uncovered long veiled sides of yourself — and you showed your cards too early. You run out of kinetic potential. You bottom out before the first lap is over. From a chemical perspective, the first high was so high that the intoxication is burned through once it hits the light of day. Or the post-laboratory world.

The Conclusion | I’d Still Try It

The NYT article wasn’t entirely wrong. For the author, the 36 questions worked. And they undoubtedly encourage “interpersonal closeness,” the term used in the original experiment’s 1997 article. Love just seems too strong a word for a laboratory date without cocktails.

Not everyone is neurologically wired to react to the study in the same way, and even if they are, it primes you for a high that may be impossible to repeat. So maybe it will offer you the most intimate hour of your life, but its potency may stop at the laboratory door. Maybe it can help you fall in love, but likely not with anyone. And even if it does lead to love, a white picket fence is far from guaranteed.

Despite all this, I’d try it. I’m fascinated. I really am. Maybe it’s reckless. Maybe it would lead to an amazing three day romance doomed to failure. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Whether a laboratory or a coffee shop, fifty minutes or fifty years, the chemical and psychological excitement of love, however fleeting, might justify the experience. Kind of like skydiving. And if you need reassurance, take a cue from our pop culture spirit guides, “I know a love like this won’t last forever. But I don’t really mind at all.

So here it is kids. Have fun and choose your victim wisely. Who knows, maybe it will work out for you: 36 questions to fall in love with anyone.

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