Most people will remember with some cringing embarrassment the scene where Tom Cruise newly smitten with Katie Holmes was jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNrB6qpmNwg]
Cynics claim a Hollywood beat-up noting how out of character it seemed for the normally super-controlled Cruise. In fact there may be a simpler explanation – Cruise was high on drugs. Now before the lawyers start on me for slander let me be clear I am not saying Cruise was taking illegal drugs – in fact he was hooked on the oldest and most pleasurable drug in the human natural pharmacopia – Phenylethlamine.
To put it simply phenylethlamine is what your brain produces when you smoke crack, it’s also apparently what makes chocolate so appealing. Phenylethlamine (or PEA) is responsible for what we think of as ‘chemistry’ or ‘the spark’. What is interesting about PEA is that it specifically seems to impact the pre-frontal cortex around brain centers devoted to awareness. People ‘in love’ will often say things like, “The grass was greener”, “the sky was bluer”. It seems that what is happening is that the brain is being set up for imprinting, in a very similar way to how infants imprint on their mothers, their smell, the feel of their skin, parts of their body etc. If you can recall this experience you may remember the first time you met being captured with their eyes, or a sense of their size, or a tactile sensation as their hand touched yours, or the first time you kissed their soft soft lips (ahem now were we).
PEA seems to cover 3 basic functions in human connections. Firstly it alerts us to suitably incompatible mates – I hear you say Huh? You see emotional and romantic chemistry is driven by a series of unconscious and subconscious desires to connect with people who have the positive and negative traits of our early childhood caregivers. You can find out more about this in Harville Hendrix’s best selling book Getting the Love you Want which is the basis for Imago Relationship Therapy – more about this on my website and in posts to come. Our young brains want to complete the unfinished work of childhood, we still want to be love and cuddled by our cold and rejecting mother so we find ourselves attracted to cold and distant partners, we desperately long for approval from our fathers so we look for critical and perfectionist lovers. Obviously if our adult brain (specifically the pre-frontal cortex) could recognise these traits in our prospective partners we would run a mile – so basically our young brain stem gets our adult prefrontal contex high on PEA. This helps us bond to our partners.
Secondly PEA makes us safe so we try different behaviours – it helps us get connected. Tom was high and feeling no pain just euphoria he was experiencing freedom from perfectionism and insecurity he was able to express himself. Katie probably experienced him as warm, talkative, spontaneous and alive. These behaviours are designed to give both partners some clues about how to reconnect consciously when PEA wears off – as it does typically about 6-18 months into the relationship. Would Katie have divorced the Tom who made a fool out of himself for love, the relaxed, funny happy man she met – I’d think not.
Thirdly PEA creates a powerful picture and roadmap of how to succeed in relationship (more about this next week). So PEA gets us bonded and committed – and then it wears off. In fact there seems to be directly inverse correlation between PEA level i.e. super high “in-love” feelings and commitment – which kinda sucks. But in fact there is a great design that is unfolding – more on this in the next post.