Cupid, or the God Eros, is often represented as a mischievous, chubby child. Could it be because Eros generally serves biology's procreation agenda above any other? Martie Haselton, a psychologist at UCLA characterizes romantic love as a "commitment device," a mechanism that encourages two humans to form a lasting bond. Bonds improve the chances that children survive to reproductive age fed and cared for by two parents rather than one. "Natural selection has built love to make us feel romantic," she says.1
The bond created doesn't necessarily last long enough to get children to adulthood. Indeed anthropologist Helen Fisher surmises that it wasn't meant to last more than a couple of years, the time it takes to get a child on its feet. She noticed that divorce peaked in year four across 58 cultures, and sooner where divorce is simple. Italian research suggests this might be part of a neurochemical mating program in ordinary romances. For example, by the end of two years testosterone levels diverge between mates, and there is lower nerve growth factor.
The drive to mate is dependent upon a powerful neurochemical cocktail, which produces an overwhelming emotional experience that heightens our sensory system. It can distort our perceptions, persuading us to take chances. Says Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, "You think someone made you feel good, but really it's your brain that made you feel good." Alas, this mechanism is no respecter of existing bonds. It works just as effectively (or more so) when someone new attracts us.
Some see biology's underlying agenda as quite sinister. Time journalist Jeffrey Kluger says:2
As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you're alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don't consume resources better spent on the young. Anything that encourages you to breed now and breed plenty gets that job done.
In effect, we are made up of two different categories of cells: sex cells (sperms or eggs) and all the other cells in the body. The biological purpose of the body cells is to get the sex cells into the next generation. To do this, the body spends a lot of its resources early and doesn't worry too much about repairing itself. After all, in the long run everyone will "fall off his twig," due to some mishap. So the body has curtailed its long-run interest in repairing itself in order to facilitate getting sex cells into another body before it's too late.
Scientists are now beginning to give serious attention to ways of increasing longevity. Anyone who enjoys thinking about the possibilities will like this mind-expanding twenty-minute talk by eccentric English genius Aubrey de Grey.3
Although Professor de Grey doesn't appear to be pursuing the cultivation-of-sexual-energy angle, the ancient Chinese Taoists recorded that it increases longevity. They even claimed that some sages used it to achieve physical immortality. Could controlled intercourse foil biology's agenda to some degree?
Relationships as health insurance
There's certainly evidence that committed relationships act as measurable health insurance. For example,
Decades of data collection have shown that marriage--for all its challenges--is like a health-insurance policy. A 2006 paper that tracked mortality over an eight-year period found that people who never married were 58% likelier to die during that time than married folks were. 4
Married people have lower rates of all types of mental illnesses and suicide. Some doubt that correlation equals causation, surmising that the fittest people tend to marry in the first place.
Some statistics suggest that men benefit more from marriage than women. Journalist Lori Oliwenstein reports that an Israeli study over two decades revealed that married men were 25% less likely to die of cancer than unmarried men. Yet here's an experiment that shows women benefit, too, at least from happy marriages.
Coan and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which married women underwent brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During the scans, the women were told they were going to receive a painful electric shock. The researchers then watched to see how the subjects' brains responded to the threat and found that among happily married women, hypothalamus [the control center for "fight, flight or freeze"] activity declined sharply if husbands held their wives' hands during the experiment. Women who reported being less satisfied with their marriage--and women whose hands were held by strangers--got little such relief. "The effect was pretty profound," says Coan. "It was much stronger than we thought it would be."
He also found that spousal hand-holding had an effect in an entirely different part of the brain: the right anterior insula, which responds to the threat of pain by calling your attention to the part of your body that's in danger, increasing the amount of discomfort you ultimately feel. In Coan's study, the right anterior insula of happily married women stayed relatively quiet. "This suggests," he says, "that your spouse may function as an analgesic."5
What really benefits us?
Anecdotally, at least, most people genuinely seem to experience an increase in wellbeing from companionship...at least until the tension builds between them. Alas, that tension may be built-in to our design - as surely as the tendency to form bonds in the first place. Biology is better served when we change mates and produce more varied offspring.
This is why we suggest that the benefits of controlled intercourse may stem from the sustained harmony that it permits. The stress of fighting humanity's insistent "move on" neurochemistry is avoided. Not only that, consistent, generous affection appears to equate with increases in oxytocin. Oxytocin counters stress. This benefit itself may promote longevity.
Oxytocin also surges for a few seconds at orgasm and drops right down afterward, so journalists often conclude that orgasm is the reason marriage correlates with better health. This is a weak theory. After all, if orgasm were the key to longevity those who orgasm the most (alone or with a partner) would be living the longest and healthiest lives. The statistics suggest that it is companionship more than orgasm that benefits us.
We think that if scientists could distinguish between the factors of harmony, companionship, oxytocin, stress and longevity, the truth would be evident. Alas, marriage statistics themselves do a poor job of that, as quite stressful and emotionally-distant marriages are bundled together with intimate, happy marriages.
Choose your Cupid
Maybe it's time to choose consciously how best to symbolize our personal Cupid. Do we want to emphasize procreation and adopt the related social and religious dogma that evolved when humans were relatively scarce and economic security was enhanced by more offspring? Or do we want to think about the hidden potential that lies in using romantic feelings for better health, less stress and...well...who knows?
In various times and places throughout history a few careful observers have wandered down the second pathway. In effect, they discovered that humans can learn to employ their inherent child-support neurochemistry, which temporarily bonds lovers romantically, to strengthen and preserve the bonds between them indefinitely. For more, see The Big "O" Isn't Orgasm.
The prescription is simple, if not particularly easy.
- Find a partner willing to explore a new approach to sex.
- Sleep together with lots of affection, but without fanning the flames of desire neurochemistry. By producing a consistent supply of oxytocin, or “cuddle chemical,” a calming balance builds between lovers.
- While maintaining that mindset, focus on generous, affectionate lovemaking with periods of stillness.
- Avoid the intense sexual stimulation of fertilization-driven sex - that is, avoid orgasm and going to “the edge” of orgasm. Fortunately steps two and three make this step a lot easier.
Throughout history, those who have explored this alternative have remarked on the power of this practice to fuel the creation of non-physical progeny, such as creative works, healing powers, and intellectual insight. Allowing passion to take a new form also seems to increase wellbeing. As the irate St. Chrysostom noted more than 1500 years ago, the shocking practice of sexual continence between men and women kept women youthful much longer:
The “spiritual bride” (whose mate practices continence) is free from these burdens [of unrestrained lust, pregnancy, delivery, lactation, and the bringing of up children]. She retains her vigor and her youthfulness, and even at the age of forty may rival the young nubile girl.
A double ardor thus burns in the heart of him who lives with her, and the gratification of desire never extinguishes the bright flame which ever continues to increase in strength."6
What age is your Cupid? Italian Antonio Canova finished this sculpture in 1793. It is called Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l'Amour7 (another name for Cupid). Psyche was a mortal woman with whom the god Cupid (Eros) fell in love. In a post-orgasmic, bonehead move, she allows her jealous sisters to manipulate her; she breaks her promise not to try to see him in the light. He leaves her.
In this sculpture Cupid revives her with a kiss after she has faced many travails to win him back. After her rescue the gods at last transform her into a goddess.
Are kisses merely for genetic immortality?
'Romance Is an Illusion' Haselton and her colleagues have people think about how much they love someone and then try to suppress thoughts of other attractive people. They then have the same people think about how much they sexually desire those same partners and then try again to suppress thoughts about others. It turns out that love does a much better job of pushing out those rivals than sex does. Haselton argues that this effect is exactly what you'd expect if sex was a drive to reproduce and love was a drive to form a long-term commitment.
- 2. 'Why We Love'
- 3. For more on the science of immortality:
The Economist's article on life extension,
De Grey's Methuseleh Foundation,
Attila Chordash's site on 'partial immortalization', (use of stem cells to replace worn out parts), and
Information on life extension through calorie restriction.
- 4. 'Marry Me'
- 5. 'Marry Me' Here's the abstract of the research, entitled "The psychophysiology of adult attachment relationships: Autonomic reactivity in marital and premarital interactions."
- 6. St. Chrysostom's polemic polemic, "Against Those Who Keep Virgins in their Houses.” For more see, "
Spiritual Brides of Early Christianity."
- 7. "Psyche revived by the kiss of Love"