I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Ps 139:14)
Ever wondered about that spark of sexual awareness? Or the magical moment when your heart’s thumping with that cosmic connection of love? What happens when a couple are sexually intimate?
In this first article on sexuality, we will explore the brain systems involved in sexual desire, romantic love and long term bonding.
Sexual desire is a testosterone-fueled drive in the brain’s emotional system. It is a non-specific awareness of, and appetite for sex. It kicks in at puberty and varies in type and intensity between individuals.
What turns us on sexually is influenced by our experiences from childhood, a process called scripting. It continues to be influenced by what we choose to feed our brain. In a process called ‘neuroplasticity’, external stimuli develop new neuronal pathways even when we are adults. Paul wasn’t aware of the mechanism, but understood the concept when he wrote ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things’ (Phil 4:8).
What happens when we ‘fall in love’?
Romantic love, or limerence, is a passionate attraction to a specific person, an intense motivation for intimacy with the ‘beloved’. This highly emotional state is associated with the brain chemical dopamine, a powerful pleasure chemical involved in the ‘reward circuit’. Dopamine is sprayed over the brain, with an effect a little like taking cocaine. Elation, light-headedness, euphoria, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping are all symptoms of this crazy phase. Other chemical changes include an increase in norepinephrine and decreased levels of central serotonin. All of these get us hooked—we think about our beloved all the time, we want to be close to them.
In Song of Songs 8:6-7, the lover says ‘love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away.’
Making decisions at this crazy besotted phase can be dangerous. Any wonder that the lover in the Song of Songs reiterates the need for care three times! (2:7; 3:5; 8:4)
This emotional phase lasts for 18-24 months. Keeping love alive after this is an action. You make a choice when romance fades. You either move out of the relationship, or you choose commitment and stay, thereby moving to the next phase of attachment or bonding.
Sexual intimacy bonds a couple at brain level. The brain chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin (‘cuddle hormones’) increase when a couple have sex. An orgasm sends oxytocin levels through the roof.
The more you make love, the closer you feel, and the closer you feel, the more you make love, forming the basis of a ‘one-flesh’ relationship (Gen 2:24; Mk 10:8).
Sexual intimacy, therefore, is never a ‘casual’ act. The apostle Paul stresses this in 1 Corinthians 6:16 ‘Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh”.’
Sexual intimacy, whether real or even virtual (pornography) is potentially a bonding activity.
It is also why breaking up with a lover is traumatic, and many divorcees find it hard to forget an ex—even when they no longer love them.
There we have it—the brain in love.
My future columns will use this information to critique the cultural worldview of sexuality, and discuss issues of pornography and sex education.
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