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The Chemistry of Love
May 7 2018

The Chemistry of Love

by James Watt
Photos: Kieran Cudlip

Sweaty palms. Racing heart. Flushed cheeks. Butterflies in the stomach. We all recognise the physical symptoms of love. They’re the calling cards of attraction that make us lie awake at night, but what’s really going on underneath? What’s driving and triggering these telltale signs? 

Behind the scenes, an assortment of chemicals is surging through our bodies: oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, testosterone, oestrogen. Hardly sounds like romantic poetry, but these hormones and neurotransmitters are the bio-chemical triggers for the feelings we associate with love. Perhaps the most well-known here is dopamine. Involved in a wide range of brain function, it’s commonly thought of as the pleasure chemical and is deeply linked with addiction, reward-motivated behaviour, and the development of romantic attraction. In 2005, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted an MRI study comparing volunteers’ neural responses to photographs of acquaintances and those the volunteers romantically loved. When viewing pictures of loved ones, the participants’ scans were brightly lit with dopamine across several major regions. Dopamine causes us to feel euphoric or energetic, and can sometimes lead to decreased appetite or difficulty sleeping. In the early, exciting stages of love our brain is flooded with this chemical and the reward centres begin to fire on all cylinders.
 
Enter The Effect. Lucy Prebble’s play sees Tristan and Connie meet as volunteers during a clinical trial for a new dopamine-enhancing antidepressant. Stuck in a sealed ward for five weeks, their relationship develops under the watchful eye of psychiatric clinicians Dr Lorna James and Dr Toby Sealey. They’re an unlikely pairing—Tristan seems a bit of a carefree drifter, Connie is a driven and interrogative psychology student—but as sparks begin to fly and passions rise a deep question emerges: how do we know what we really feel? Can we trust our body’s signs? If love is driven by chemical processes, can it be faked with a dopamine-boosting drug? Toby says in the play that ‘your brain is taking care of many things so that you don’t have to’, but are we in control if these processes are governed by our subconscious?
 
Our cast—Nicola Reynolds, Jâms Thomas, Hussina Raja, and Neal McWilliams, led by director Dan Jones— have delved deep into these challenging questions, drawn heavily in discussion from personal experience, and carved out the journeys of four lives amid this haze of uncertainty. The honesty and candidness in the rehearsal room was breathtaking and created an open space in which to explore the reaching questions that Prebble’s play provokes, ranging from different theoretical models for understanding mental health to whether we can believe anything beyond our physical bodies. 
 
Yet what resonated most strongly with us was that this play is as hearty as it is heady. Prebble beautifully places the empirical and scientific alongside the romantic and heartfelt. In The Effect these aren’t two separate worlds but an interconnected and complex web of feelings, thoughts, and actions that are almost impossible to separate from one another. As Dr James ‘says: ‘This can’t be pulled apart. We’re crazy to think it can.’ Perhaps that’s okay. Tristan may not be an inquisitive psychology student or experienced medical professional, but he offers some of the most provoking thoughts. ‘What difference does it make?’ he asks, ‘People meet each other and fall in love all sorts of ways, doesn’t matter what started it.’ Even if we don’t know what balance of unconscious chemical reactions and free will leads us to fall for someone, perhaps the fact we feel and experience real love at all is enough. 
 
In a taut, relentless two hours on stage, we see so much of this truthful, real love. Love in all its mess and confusion, its disagreements, difficulties, and conflicts. In The Effect, love isn’t just chance meetings; dreams of future lives; or exciting encounters in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s also omitted truths, ‘affectionate but practical’ handjobs; and tiring hard work. Yet in all its incarnations, love is a powerful force at the heart of our production that has already connected with our audience here in the Welsh capital.
 
Maybe what causes this desire to love and be loved is just a cocktail of chemicals soaring through our bodies. Maybe it is something more. Maybe it doesn’t matter. 

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