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December 28, 2014

Romeo and Juliet doomed by science

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Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014 2:30 am | Updated: 8:00 am, Fri Feb 14, 2014.

Romeo and Juliet may have had more things going for them than Shakespeare’s pen.

True, the two star-crossed teens loved each other so deeply that the play has become fodder for generations of angst-ridden lovers.

But perhaps the two may have been doomed from the start because of biology and sociology.

Literature aside, Heidi Fletcher, Ph.D., who teaches chemistry at Waynesburg University, said brain chemistry plays an important role in relationships.

Beverly Ross, Ph.D., who teaches sociology at California University of Pennsylvania, said attraction is based on a variety of factors.

To help make this article flow better in the mind’s eye, imagine Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, who played Romeo and Juliet in the somewhat strange 1996 modern day film inspired by Shakespeare’s classic.

While a clever turn of phrase may have helped Romeo, he got assistance from pheromones and brain chemistry.

Pheromones are a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species.

Fletcher said to some degree, these pheromones illicit an involuntary response especially when coupled with physical features.

But before anyone heads to the lab to mix up a powerful pheromone love potion, there is a catch. Fletcher said the pheromones that attract one person may not necessarily attract another.

“If you were to spray on a love potion, it wouldn’t work on everyone,” she said. “If a person is not attracted to another, no amount of pheromone is going to work.”

And then there’s chemistry.

Fletcher said when people are physically attracted to each other, the brain reacts through a pleasurable chemical response.

“Physical attraction leads to a chemical response in the brain,” said Fletcher, who has done analytical neuroscience research.

Fletcher said naturally occurring chemical compounds, such as dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin, create that initial rush — the love high. These chemicals heighten the emotional response and pleasure involved with falling in love. Vasopressin plays an important role in emotional bonding.

Chemicals like dopamine make it possible to be “Love Stoned” as Justin Timberlake’s song says.

Think about how love stoned Romeo must have been to risk his neck to crash a rather entertaining, but potentially dangerous, costume ball to see Juliet. Later, Romeo climbs up to Juliet’s balcony — they didn’t have cellphones, so no text messages or selfies. But this crazy behavior may have been fueled by chemicals as much as it was Romeo’s desire to wax poetic with Juliet.

“People do crazy things for love,” Fletcher said. “The response that is going on in your brain is a positive happy feeling. We yearn to love others. That, coupled with Romeo’s chemical response, which occurs from his physical attraction, amplified his crazy love for Juliet.”

Ross said the old saying — opposites attract — isn’t necessarily true. She said folks are attracted to each other because they share similar traits.

“People tend to be attracted to and hook up with people who are like-minded,” said Ross, a forensic psychologist and sociologist. “Those are people with similar backgrounds, levels of education and beliefs. That old adage about opposites attracting — potential mates are more attracted to those partners who think and believe the same things that they do.”

Applied to Romeo and Juliet, those two crazy teens came from rich families with warlike sensibilities and an affinity for revenge. The Montagues and Capulets were Christian. And the two families lived within reasonably close proximity to each other in Verona, which was probably no bigger than Uniontown back in the day.

Now contrast Romeo and Juliet’s similarities with that of DiCaprio and Kate Winslett in the epic movie “Titanic.” Using Ross’ metric, where birds of a feather flock together, the “King of the World” would never have been involved in a relationship with that whiny soon-to-be bride Winslett (who ends up surviving the tragedy).

Winslett and DiCaprio shared a first-class background with her presumed suitor, rich industrialist Billy Zane. In sharp contrast to reality and sociology, she goes slumming with a penniless painter from steerage, but that’s Hollywood.

Ross said the relationship may have worked.

“However, DiCaprio and Winslett did share some common ground because they were both rebellious and trying to break out of their roles,” Ross said. “She was trying to break out of her rigid social status and he was trying to establish himself. So, it may have worked — maybe.”

“Titanic” exposes a sometimes painful point of what men and women seek.

Ross said men are attracted by physical beauty and tend to seek younger women.

“Men are different than women,” she said. “Men are far more likely to choose a partner based on looks and youth.”

Ross said women are not so much interested in physical appearance than a mate’s ability to provide. She said women tend to hook up with someone their own age or older.

“Depending on the age of the woman, women focus less on looks and more on what indicates who would be a good provider or mate,” she said.

But men and women’s predisposition toward the perfect mate doesn’t necessarily mean that Playboy models and rich old men will always end up together. Ross said that both sexes are attracted to good-looking folks. And there is a good reason for that — evolution.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the real reason people mate is to procreate,” she said. “The theory behind why we are attracted to good-looking people, from an evolutionary perspective, the better looking someone is, the perception is that they are better able to produce healthy offspring.”

But in the end, science alone is not enough to make love work, especially on Valentine’s Day.

“Through nature, God has wired our brains for this response to happen so we fall in love, be in love and love others,” Fletcher said.

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