Let me count the theories:
1. Freudian (breasts remind men of their moms and the nurturing of childhood)
2. Evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks, and prehuman ancestors always mounted from behind)
3. Reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age, and big breasts in particular are a marker of high estrogen levels, associated with fertility).
Do these reasons sufficiently explain why breasts are beloved — even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face?
If not, here’s another:
Breasts facilitate “pair-bonding” between couples. Men evolved to love breasts because women are likelier to have sex with — and/or become attached to — lovers who handle their breasts.
This idea came up in New York Times journalist John Tierney’s interview with Larry Young, a neuroscientist famous for his research on monogamy. According to Young, “[M]ore attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.”
The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.
When women’s breasts are suckled, as they are during breastfeeding, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin makes the mother feel good and helps her bond with her baby. She feels loving and attached. The same reaction might happen if a man sucks and caresses a woman’s breasts during foreplay. In our ancestral past, the most titillated men may have been the ones to attract and retain mates and pass on their genes.
The “boobs-help-bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, there are many ladies out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling boobs who know nothing of foreplay.
To quote George Elliot: “That quiet mutual gaze of a trusting husband and wife is like the first moment of rest or refuge from a great weariness or a great danger.” Locking eyes with a loved one triggers a powerful hormonal response, in particular the release of the hormone oxytocin. The more oxytocin absorbed by receptors in your brain, the more trusting, attached, and calm you’ll feel.
Have no trusting partner with whom to share that “quiet mutual gaze”? Not to worry: a new study led by biologist Miho Nagasawa at Azabu University in Japan has found that much of the same benefit can be gained from your pet dog.
Yes, dogs have been found to increase their owners’ oxytocin levels much in the same way that close human companions do. Nagasawa and his colleagues measured urinary oxytocin concentrations from 55 owners (male and female) just before and twenty minutes after interacting with their dogs. The owners were divided into two groups: those whose dogs gazed at them frequently and extensively (~150 seconds per gaze) during the half-hour interaction, and those whose dogs made less eye contact (<50 seconds). In a control experiment, the owners were forbidden to look at their dogs while interacting with them.
Owners who made extended eye contact with their dogs had significantly higher oxytocin levels in their urine after the experiment than beforehand. Owners who only made brief eye contact with their dog during the interaction didn’t have much of an oxytocin surge. Nor did any of the owners when they weren’t allowed to make eye contact with their pets. Duration of ownership and the gender of the owner and dog were ruled out as significant factors.
Oxytocin, conclude the researchers, works just as well for inter-species bonding as it does human bonding. A mutual gaze triggers semiautomatic attachment behavior, and it’s not limited to lovers and babies. The owner perceives an emotion in the animal’s gaze and anthropomorphically interprets it as mutual attachment. When the eye lock is extended and nonthreatening, we’re hardwired to reciprocate in kind (which, as I detail in BLONDES, is why it works so well for lovers). Oxytocin facilitates this bonding effect — and the owner feels emotionally closer and satisfied by the pet in the same way he or she might in a human relationship.
Do dogs get the same oxytocin rush from gazing at their human companion? It’s unclear. While humans gaze at their pets to fill their hearts and souls, our pets might gaze back to fill their stomachs or to establish dominance. But I’m not completely cynical. I have a precious Siamese cat who has been my companion since I was a teenager. She has chronic renal failure now. One of her eyes is a milky gray, the result of a cataract and luxated lens that the vet doesn’t want to fix. She rests on my lap as I write. Once in a while she picks up her head and gazes at me with her one blue eye, and I know she loves me too.
Several times in the last week, twice on the subway and once in a cafe, I sat near a baby-talking couple spweaking wike dis, in a wery squeaky voice, saying wuv wu oochy-coochie poopy. They were all adults in their mid-twenties to mid-forties. They wore leather jackets, high heels, makeup, suits-and-ties. But they acted as if they were in diapers.
I think terms of endearment — Cupcake, Honey, Tootie, Mochi — are sweet. It’s the bwack-and-forth bwabble that bwothers me a bwit, only because I don’t understand the appeal. Of all forms of role play, infantilizing a boyfriend or husband — talking to him as a little girl would a baby doll — just doesn’t seem romantic or arousing.
Yet psychologists consider lovers’ babytalk a real and valid form of bonding. A study by Meredith Bombar and Lawrence Littig suggests it’s a good sign: Babytalkers were more secure and less avoidant in romantic relationships. In effect they’re reactivating primal circuits of attachment. Ickle-bitty-peshus-wuvy cooing reinforces intimacy, tapping into the unconditional love of a parent for child. The old “play” circuits are also activated; as in any form of fantasy, babytalk allows a couple to step outside the limits of self, space, and time. Stress is reduced — the same reason why a recent study on light S&M found that couples who spank together stay together. Babytalking lovers get a blast of dopamine and oxytocin in areas of the brain involved in reward and bonding — the ventral tegmental area, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.
According to psychologists, mutual use of high-pitched voices, soothing whispers, cooing, lisping, and overexpressive faces is a way of “looping” or “mirroring” affection. Exclusive and intimate, it’s an act of trust-building. Think of it as verbal swaddling. Along with the other bonding benefits, babytalk may be a way of flaunting one’s healthy emotional neural circuitry — suggesting not only love and commitment but also strong parental instincts. (Take it to an extreme and more interesting interpretations may be made.)
Psychologists, then, don’t seem troubled by babytalk between lovers. In moderation it’s considered a healthy indulgence. Even so, it’s not my idea of pampering.
In BLONDES I describe how pheromones such as androstenone and hormones such as oxytocin have been found to influence mood and possibly attraction — but the effects are subtle and context-dependent.
Several readers saw the text box in which I mention the DIY-ers who are concocting their own pheromones (so-called -mones or pheros) in basement labs, or ordering commercial formulas online, and trying them on in social situations such as on the subway or a first date. No shock: most of the dabblers are guys. Some suffer from social anxiety and a gaping suspension of disbelief. (But insatiable curiosity is always an acceptable excuse.) Others are women, sometimes lovelorn girlfriends seeking to jumpstart a sputtering sex life or recapture the magic of the first few months of a love affair. To these idealists, the chemical route to a person’s heart is more compelling than the psychological. If only there were really such a thing as a love potion.
“How do I find these forums?” eager readers have asked. Here are a few links below — some are interesting observations, others analyze sprays and so on. There’s no harm in dabbling with dab-ons, I believe. Make-your-own-mones! Find-your-own-pheros! As long as you don’t take it too seriously.
Many of the pheromones discussed are related to androstenone (male scent) and copulins (female scent) and the hormone oxytocin. Wearers experiment to get the right amount and type of chemical that match their own body chemistry. (The book describes the actual pheromone studies in some detail.) There is real scientific evidence that sweat-derived chemicals have a moderate effect in some situations. But these underground Boyles and Curies have their own approach, totally unburdened by the scientific method:
The Pheromone Information Library
In the confusing world of pheromone retailers telling their customers whatever they want to hear to get them to buy their products, the Pheromone Information Library provides unbiased and accurate information written by existing users of pheromones.
Discussion of pheromones and other topics related to the science of attraction
A few interesting threads:
The pheromone help list (dosing, technique, experiences, philosophy, etc.)
Sweat the secret to making pheromone sprays work?
Getting an ex-boyfriend back
Advice, tips & tricks for chemical DIY-ers as well as good old-fashioned advice on basic interpersonal relations. Members share their formulaic faves
A few interesting threads:
The Snook’s big book o’ pheros for rookies
[Research] Vagina lovers: Who can best describe the aroma at its most attractive?
What works: Intimacy/Long Term Relationships (& sex, sex/sensual “enhancers”)
Kitty’s Curious Combos (aka MixMistress)
Discusses pheromones along with commercial fragrances
Drugs-forum strives to be a information hub of high standards and a platform where people can freely discuss recreational drugs in a mature manner.
Oxytocin is the pair bonding hormone that creates a feeling of trust, bonding and love within mammals. This forum explores whether it works as a spray.
Not to detract from the fun, but do take all these anecdotes with a healthy dab o’ doubt. A recent study led by biologist Craig Roberts suggests that, sure, spray-ons work. Women judged men wearing a special male scent as more attractive. Funny enough, they also thought the fragrance-wearing men were more attractive when watching them in a video where they could not be smelled. In still pictures, however, fragrance wearers were no more attractive than men who didn’t wear fragrance. It turns out it’s not the chemical that makes men more attractive. It’s their mien and bearing — the confidence they got from believing it works.
Then again, maybe they hadn’t yet struck that perfect pheromonal chord.
Why do men love breasts? In BLONDES I describe the most interesting and promising theories — from the Freudian (breasts remind men of Mom) to the evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks and prehuman ancestors mounted from behind), and the reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age and big breasts are a marker of high estrogen levels). These are some of the most likely reasons why breasts are beloved even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face.
A new spin on the male fascination with breasts came up this week in John Tierney’s interview with neuroscientist Larry Young on love blockers. According to Young, “more frequent sex and more attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.” The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.
The article doesn’t connect all the dots, but the suggestion is as follows: The hormone oxytocin is released when breastfeeding, making the mother feel good and helping her bond with baby. Sucking and caressing a woman’s breasts during foreplay may also trigger oxytocin release. When oxytocin hits the brain, women become more trusting and attached. Men evolved to pay attention to breasts as a means of attracting and retaining lovers.
The “boobs help bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, I strongly suspect that there are many women out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling guys who know nothing of foreplay.
Is this the end of love as we know it — exasperating, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and full of rogue potential? Does the future offer sex without emotional mayhem? Fuss-free breakups?
“Love is dead.” “Anti-love drug may be ticket to bliss.” Such are today’s headlines trumpeting the research of neuroscientist Larry Young. Dr Young and his team at Yerkes Research Center are best known for their studies on the love lives of more-or-less monogamous prairie voles. (In BLONDES I describe their fascinating views on the genetic and hormonal basis of bonding and what it might mean for humans. On a related topic, check out my cheating gene post.) The first question inspired by this research is “Can a drug make you fall in love?” The flip side of this coin is just as rich: “Can a drug prevent you from falling in love?”
For now it’s all speculation, but many researchers, including Dr Young, believe the latter is possible. (Fewer care to speculate on the former. Given how difficult love is to define, it’s easier to say you can prevent it than invoke it.) The gist of the idea is that a drug could short-circuit the biochemical pathways that flood the “emotional bonding regions” of the brain with neurohormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin. Just as morning-after pills work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting, so the “anti-love drug” — oxytocin or vasopressin blockers — would prevent emotional seeds from taking root. Female voles who are given anti-love drugs can mate with a male dozens of times and fail to exhibit any of their usual bonding tendencies, no matter how affectionate the males.
What good is an anti-love drug? The possibilities abound. A few nasal puffs and a woman may more easily have “sex like a man,” feeling pleasure but free of the morning-after anxiety of whether he’s “all that into her.” People in addictive, abusive relationships could just pick up and carry on. Couples may have open marriages without emotional messiness. There may be fewer midlife crises involving trophy wives and umbrella boys. Sex would be only sex. The anti-love drug could be a temporary fix of sanity.
But would you dare take it — even on a short-term basis? At risk of throwing the poll above, my vote is no. What sort of human beings would we be without a range and depth of emotional experience? The angst and anguish of lost love. The self-mending. Even the melancholic savor. What would we learn about ourselves without it? Even in the twenty-first century I’d say it’s better to love and lose than never to love at all.