It’s poetry. It’s chemistry. It’s the inexhaustible subject of songs and stories, and fertile ground for the display of human foibles. It’s passionate and, for better or worse, political. “What is this thing called love?” asked the great songwriter Cole Porter. Without presuming to answer the question, the Bulletin’s editors pondered it from various angles, with the help of some Kenyon experts.

This is your brain, on love

When a couple “has chemistry,” you can tell—by the chemicals.

Addiction to love is a common refrain among pop artists from Robert Palmer to Ke$ha—and with good reason. Research shows that love, with all its intense feelings, has an effect on our brain similar to a drug.

“Love is a cascade of events that makes you feel good,” said Sheryl Hemkin, associate professor of chemistry. “It’s similar to the cascade of events caused by gambling, eating certain foods, or taking drugs.”

Hemkin, who teaches neurochemistry, links love to the release of dopamine, known as the “feel-good chemical,” in your brain, where it interacts with receptors and sends signals to other neurons that trigger sensations of pleasure. The higher the levels of dopamine, the higher a person feels—whether falling in love or using an illegal substance like cocaine.

“It all plugs into the same system,” Hemkin said.

While dopamine’s role in human affection sounds unromantic, believers in true love should not lose heart. After all, Hemkin added, a brain in lust is very different from a brain in love. “Lust is like a drug, purely a drug in the sense that you just want it because you anticipate that it will make you feel good,” she said. “Love, on the other hand, can reshape how you think about your partner.”

Hemkin cited a study by Lucy Brown, a neurobiologist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, that scanned the brain activity of people in relationships who reported being “madly in love.” When the subjects looked at pictures of their partners, parts of their brains became more active than when they looked at friends with similar characteristics. “This explains why, when you’re in love, you tend to see your partner as more beautiful, more perfect, than perhaps they really are,” Hemkin said.

While dopamine can be activated by as little as a longing gaze, another love chemical, oxytocin, is triggered by physical interaction. “If dopamine makes you feel good, then oxytocin helps you feel more attached to that person,” she said. Known as the “bonding hormone,” it is the same chemical released after childbirth that helps a mother bond with her baby, particularly when breastfeeding.

Oxytocin also has been linked to protecting monogamy. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, men in heterosexual relationships who were given a dose of the chemical preferred to keep their distance from an attractive female stranger they just met. It did not have the same effect on men who were single.

That’s encouraging news for committed couples who feel the euphoric effects of dopamine leveling off a few years into their relationships. “After two years of being really excited by seeing your partner, your brain often comes to a new normal,” Hemkin said. “It’s the same with alcohol. If you’re chronically drinking, you tend not to seem as drunk after drinking five beers as someone who goes out and drinks five beers for the first time. Your brain develops a tolerance.”

Does this mean that the drug-like power of dopamine can be blamed for the 40 to 50 percent of American marriages that end in divorce? “It could play a role, sure,” Hemkin said, referring to advice from David Linden, author of The Compass of Pleasure, who recommends mandating a waiting term for marriage. “To make sure that once you come off that intense love high, that you still want to be with that person.” - Megan Monaghan

When Love Meets Hate

Making a film about the gay-marriage debate, Becca Roth ’10 tackles a larger issue: the need for people to talk.

All we need is love. The problem, as Becca Roth ’10 sees it, is that we spend a lot of time trying to define what love is—and what it is not—and in so doing, we can end up generating hate. Roth thinks the solution might well be open discussion.

She tested these views in making One: The Story of Love and Equality, a documentary film about the 2012 vote in North Carolina on an amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Roth’s goal was to make a fair, non-politicized film aimed at fostering greater understanding between opposing sides. Part of her desire was personal. Her own experience as a gay woman growing up in New York left her baffled by the people who oppose gay marriage in North Carolina and elsewhere.

“I don’t think people are intentionally hateful,” said the twenty-six-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn. “If people acknowledge where others are coming from—even if it’s hurtful and inaccurate—and get to know them, then opinions will change.”

In One, which is set up as a countdown to the vote, interspersing interviews with campaign events and rallies, she presents real people who would be affected by the legislation. The film features an optimistic young gay couple planning what they hope will be a legal wedding, as well as poignant scenes of an elderly lesbian couple navigating the legal side of health care—visitation, power of attorney—as they age.

But when it came to getting gay-marriage opponents to talk on camera, Roth ran into resistance. Throughout the film, the one man/one woman amendment was ahead in the polls. Yet its supporters, she said, “were so closed off and unwilling to talk.”

She understood the desire for each side to stand together. When we share arguments with like-minded people, we feel validated. Likewise, when we dismiss opposing viewpoints as “stupid,” their views become irrelevant to us.

“But it doesn’t bring people together,” she said.

Ultimately, she found only three people who would speak on film about why they believed homosexuality was wrong: an ex-gay counselor at a local church and a couple at an anti-gay-marriage rally. To get them to talk, she felt she had to conceal the fact that she is gay. The counselor explained how he believed same-sex attraction was like a disease that could be treated, while the couple said they believed homosexuality is a sin. They said that they didn’t know any gay people.

Roth chose not to end the film with the final vote—the amendment passed by more than 20 percentage points—but instead with the reactions of the gay-marriage opponents when she came out to them, revealing her sexual orientation. The response to Roth was kind, with perhaps a glimmer of bewilderment—she wasn’t a faceless stereotype, but a person they had come to care about.

“The people who voted for the amendment thought they were voting for the right thing,” Roth said. “For me, it was realizing everything they were doing was out of love and not hate, which so many people think.”

Still, one of the amendment supporters told her she needed to read the Bible. “They’re never going to get it completely,” Roth said.

But the dialogue for her was a start.

This desire for communication and understanding comes out of her years at Kenyon, Roth said. “At Kenyon, the people I surrounded myself with were very progressive. That was powerful and great.”

As a student, she helped organize a gay prom in Mount Vernon. It wasn’t particularly well attended by the high school students for whom it was intended, but it brought out vehement protesters. Roth ended up in a shouting match with the protesters and left wondering what she’d actually accomplished. It was a defining moment for her and for her work.

“The world isn’t Kenyon,” she said. “I got this expanded need for love and understanding
in the world.”

Since graduation, she has worked as a writer, director and producer of films such as the indie short Rain in Summer, and on music videos, including “Somebody Saves” by Kind Monitor. She’s currently writing a feature-length film that she describes as being “in the outline stage.”

Roth is happy that the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, opening the way to challenges of gay-marriage bans like the one in North Carolina. But making gay marriage legal isn’t her only goal.

“Even if gay marriage is legal tomorrow, there’s still going to be half the country that doesn’t understand,” she said. “It needs to be presented to people in a way that’s welcoming and not alienating.”

Love, she said, can’t be reduced to a shouting match. “You can’t fight fire with fire. You can’t hate people into loving.” - Robin Davis

The Semisweet Truth About Aphrodisiacs

Your arousal? It’s probably just “excitation transfer.” But don’t let that stop you from wrapping your tongue around those oysters, avocados and chocolate.

Chocolate. Honey. Oysters. Even the words rolling off the tongue evoke a sensual feeling.

Aphrodisiacs have long been part of the love landscape. Montezuma supposedly drank fifty cups of a chocolate concoction every day to help him service his substantial harem. Honey has been connected to sex in volumes from the Kama Sutra to the Bible. And oysters? Well, let’s just say the slurpable bivalves are one of the most popular items on restaurant menus around Valentine’s Day.

The belief is that aphrodisiacs create a bodily change that boosts the sex drive. Chocolate, for example, causes a spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine that induces feelings of pleasure. Chili peppers make the heart pump and the pores sweat, similar to what happens during sex.

But the biggest power of an aphrodisiac may well be over an organ above the waist: the brain. Many of the effects of so-called love potions come not from what they do to us physically, but instead psychologically.

“We’re very superstitious animals,” said Allan Fenigstein, professor of psychology. “If things happen together, we assume a connection together.”

If a platter of oysters precedes a particularly satisfying romp, for example, the mind will likely link the two events.

“Psychologists have the idea that emotion can transfer from one experience to another, even though there’s no connection,” he said. “It’s misattribution, or excitation transfer.”

And just being told that something improves sexual performance can make it so simply because of the power of suggestion.

“We really don’t look very far for evidence if we hear about something, if we read something, even anecdotal, especially in this domain,” said Fenigstein. “It’s all the result of expectation.”

There’s no objective research that conclusively shows a correlation between consumption of aphrodisiacs and increased libido, according to Fenigstein. “Lots of things can alter one’s mood, energy and drive,” he said. “But an aphrodisiac with a chemical-biological impact is nothing that has been clearly validated.”

But don’t let that be a mood-killer when you want to fire up your love life. Adding any of the popular aphrodisiacs at right to the menu at the very least makes a delicious meal. And from there? It all depends on how much you believe. - Robin Davis

The shape of an avocado mimics a woman's curves, while the creamy texture is pleasing to the mouth. Avocados contain plenty of vitamin E, associated with maintaining youthful vigor.

Chili Peppers
Lovers can literally spice things up by eating chili peppers, which stimulate endorphins, imitating the feelings of arousal.

A jolt of caffeine as well as a shot of phenylethylamine, or the "love molecule," may make this sound like an especially promising aphrodisiac, but even if it's nothing more than dessert, it's a surefire winner for most lovers.

This amber liquid makes anything taste sweeter. Bonus: It also provides the body with a readily available energy source. Maybe it's no more of an aphrodisiac than a sugar cube, but it sure looks prettier.

Five Types of Kenyon Couples

Do students still “date”? What does “hookup” really mean? Two sophomores archly dissect the relationship scene on campus.

Love is difficult, especially when you’re a sensitive, hormonal young adult living in the middle of rural Ohio. While we are not experts on the matter, we are two sophomores who have noticed some interesting trends in dating life here on the Hill—in particular, five common types of romantic relationships.

The Kenyon marriage
A “Kenyon married” couple is a Kenyon institution. This couple is always together, has no qualms about public displays of affection and may even choose to live together. The stress of cohabitation may lead this couple to file for a Kenyon divorce, requiring them to divide their shared assets, including the umbrella bought at the Bookstore that time on a whim, the Nalgene bottle taken on their reading-days camping trip and the oversized sweatshirt that actually belongs to someone’s dad. We asked one of our friends in a Kenyon marriage whether she and her boyfriend had any “shared assets,” to which she responded, “I eat all of his noodles when I’m drunk.” She walked away before we could clarify if this was a sexual innuendo or not.

The undefined relationship
These two people are extremely compatible and spend a lot of their time together, but never show any public affection or formally declare they are “together.” For this couple, labels are unnecessary—labels would be just another way to reinforce oppressive hetero-normative values (did we mention that everyone at Kenyon feels oppressed by hetero-normative values regardless of their sexuality?). By the way, guys, we hate to break it to you, but you’re dating. You know it, we know it, and you know we know it, so just say it!

The hookup buddies
This couple has a romantic entanglement without a real friendship. They might have a conversation or two in the daylight, but are drawn together only under the cover of darkness. A daytime conversation might go something like this, when, say, they find themselves side by side at the panini press in Peirce: “Oh man, this grilled cheese is taking forever.” “Yeah, it takes a while for the cheese to melt, haha.” “Yeah . . . it does take a while for the cheese to melt.” This relationship will probably fizzle out after a few weeks or months, depending on the intensity of their, um, carnal desires. Theoretically, these hookups could develop into a serious relationship, but that’s about as likely as my grandma learning how to use the subject line in her Gmail.

The random hookup
This is the situation most people think of when they think of “hookup culture.” Many adults see random hookups as a new trend among depraved youth. In their eyes, the traditional dating structure—in which the most intimacy a couple enjoyed prior to marriage was sharing one milkshake with two straws—has been replaced by total sexual anarchy, kids all hopped up on their newfound independence losing their inhibitions in the sweaty basement of Old Kenyon. The reality is: Just like when you were in college, sometimes people kiss each other. Get over it, Mom!

The friends who should be dating, but aren’t
Ah, and then there are those few who are lucky enough to find their soul mates in college—but don’t know it. These two friends hang out all the time, doing things a real couple would do, like going to dinner, seeing a movie, or arguing. Although they are not Kenyon-married, our research indicates that, should they ever wise up and realize they are perfect for each other, they have the best chance of being real-life married. Please note that our research consists solely of watching romantic comedies. But if 13 Going On 30 taught us anything, it’s that the friend who’s like a brother to you should really be like a lover to you. - Haleh Kanani ’16 and Hannah Zipperman ’16

Happily Ever After: 1,810

1,810. That's the number of Kenyon alumni who are married to other Kenyon alumni. Is that a lot? A little? Well, it represents 11.8 percent of living alumni who have graduated since 1973, the first year when the senior class included women. A recent report called "From Classmates to Soulmates" by Facebook Data Science—using information on people's Facebook sites, so take it with a megabyte of salt—found that about 28 percent of married college graduates attended the same college.

Love Stories
"Our first date was at the Cove. We sat across from each other. I took a sip of beer, my future husband said something funny, and I spit beer out right into his face." —Wendt Palthey '87 (married to Jean Palthey '88)

"I believe my wife and I are the first Kenyon couple to marry. My wife, Kathleen E. Seaton, transferred to Kenyon and graduated in 1972 [while the first cohort of women were still students]. I graduated in 1973. I also believe we may be the first married Kenyon couple to have fathers who graduated from Kenyon, both in 1943. We married in June of 1976." —Robert. B. Pennington II '73

"I'd had a crush on Jake, my future husband, for quite some time, and was thrilled to be invited to hang out in his second-floor Caples suite. I brought all my friends. Jake said there was one rule in his suite, which had a handmade beer pong table, multiple chairs, a futon, and walls covered in Natty Light and Keystone cardboard boxes: 'Don't knock over my bike.' I knocked it over. Seven years later, it is hanging on our wall in a tiny-ass apartment in New York City. Last fall Jake and I said 'I do' on the lawn of the Church of the Holy Spirit." —Shanna Keown-Calcei '10 (married to Jake Calcei '09)

"Ellen and I met when I was a prospective student and she was a freshman. Of course, it's why I chose Kenyon. But it took me four more years for me to land my first date. And another five to convince her to marry me." —Terry Martin '89 (married to Ellen Washburn Martin '88)

"I showed up at my future husband's Halloween party dressed as Peter Pan. No one told me it wasn't a costume party. I don't know why, but later that night when he threw up on my shoes, I knew that someday we'd be married." —Lori Dibble Collins '83 (married to John Collins '82)

"The first official date I had with my now husband of seven years, Daniel Mason '99, was a Valentine's Day party in Gund Hall. He brought me a card from the Bookstore he thought wouldn't put too much pressure on us. It read 'To my wife on Valentine's Day.'" —Heather Ronis '00

"Two weeks into our relationship, my future husband declared that someday he would ask me to marry him. I was amused but didn't believe him. On Valentine's Day, just a few weeks after it all began, he hiked through the snow all the way from campus to the florist that was at the top of the hill on the way to Mount Vernon to get me a single red rose. On Valentine's Day 2014, it will be thirty-two years since that day, and almost twenty-seven years since we got married." —Amy Holzer Irvin '82 (married to Dudley Irvin '83)

"I met my future wife, Victoria Hill Resnick '93, while photos were being made for student IDs during her freshman year. A bunch of us wacky upperclassmen were trying to make students laugh in their photos. Victoria refused to budge. She held firm until my buddies and I formed a kick-line and began to sing 'New York, New York.' This summer will mark twenty years of marriage. (P.S. is that how you remember it, hon?)" —Hugh Resnick '91

"Eleven years ago I met a super cute boy at the Hillel House. A week later, we found ourselves in a meeting of the student ministries in Peirce Hall. I waited outside after the meeting hoping to 'accidentally' bump into him. Sure enough, he came outside and offered to walk me home. It was freezing outside and he gave me his mittens. There may be nothing sweeter than a man who both wears and shares mittens. With that I was smitten. Eleven years and two children later, he is still looking out for me, and I am the luckiest woman in the world." —Rachel Levine '05 (married to Uri Levine '03)

Also In This Edition