Because We are Not Mushrooms: A Physiological and Psychoanalytic Approach to Attraction

by Iulia Boboc

Mushrooms—blind, mindless, seemingly inanimate—fear loneliness just as much as we do. In an attempt to stave off loneliness, a mushroom releases a pheromone into the world that could transverse miles and miles until heightening the interest of some far away shroom. When this pheromone reaches the love interest, the shroom, in a hopelessly romantic gesture, grows its roots in the direction of the scent until it reaches the source (Brown). It may take days, it may take months, it may even take years, but their roots keep growing until they reach that irresistibly attractive force. Such is the beginning of every mushroom couple’s romance, a love story that, like many, we refuse to relate to. After all, human beings have minds and reason. To say that the forces that shape attraction lie beyond our control would be to prostrate ourselves before the whims of nature. It would be easier for us to say that our love is not as blind as the mushrooms, that we let reason guide our pursuits, and that our free will has a say in whom we invest our love. This type of thinking can stop us from accepting what scientific evidence is continuously proving: that psychological and physiological reactions that we may not be aware or conscious of play a key role in our sexual and romantic lives.

If our conscious mind has no control over attraction, then what does? For one thing, studies in the field of body language tell us that men are likely to be drawn to women who show signs of attraction to them. Though it’s commonly thought that males take the lead in courtship, Barbara and Allan Pease explain in The Definitive Book of Body Language that, in reality, women are most often the initiators: “A woman does this by sending a series of subtle eye, body, and facial signals to the targeted man, who, assuming he is perceptive enough to pick them up, responds to them” (290). These signals are usually not consciously perceived and acted upon; rather, most actions involving attraction give the body the reins, leaving the mind to play the role of an unobservant observer. The dilation of pupils, for example, is an unconsciously perceived sign of attraction with studies showing that individuals are drawn to figures with dilated pupils. This is only one of many subliminal cues, such as the angling of the body, the interval of the gaze, the exposure of the wrists and the neck that signal interest included in Pease’s Definitive book (294-7). This interest, when picked up, attracts potential mates by communicating reciprocated interest. It’s a comforting thought—that attraction is a response to attraction—because it leaves less room for rejection.

Our bodies send even more subtle signals that science is just barely beginning to understand. For decades, scientists have considered the brain the only organ responsible for the perception and transmission of emotions. Our emotions have a huge impact on our entire body. Feelings of tranquility and safety as opposed to those of stress and anxiety impact every vital organ in our body through the distribution of hormones and neurotransmissions controlled by the brain. However, the discovery of an information processing system in the heart comprised of neurons, neurotransmitters, and hormone secretions working separately from the brain opened the door for a revolutionarily new understanding of heart’s impact on emotional processing (J.A. Armour). This communication, which sometimes manifests itself in the correlation between heartbeats and brainwaves, has lead to the development of a new branch of biology known as neurocardiology, which studies various complex methods of bidirectional communication between the heart and brain (as illustrated by the diagram below).

Image 1: (Mccarty 5)

All emotions processed through the brain are immediately communicated to the heart. In the Narayana Medical Journal, K.S.V.K. Subba Rao explains that the heart’s intrinsic nervous system, sometimes referred to as “the little brain,” plays a large role in our bodies’ reactions to emotions, primarily because the heart communicates physiological coherence or incoherence to the rest of the body via an electromagnetic field regulated by the pattern of the heartbeat (26). This electromagnetic field, which plays a role in the regulation of the cardiovascular system, is directly impacted by our emotional states. Thus, it communicates emotional disturbances to the rest of the body (McCarthy). HeartMath Institute, an organization devoted to gathering data on the heart, conducted studies that became the foundation of research that concludes the heart is largely responsible for our physiological reaction to emotions.

To complicate our understanding of the heart further, a study ran by Steven M. Morris found that human heartbeats can synchronize not only between individuals but also throughout entire groups (66). In order for this synchronization to be possible, there must be a mode of communication that causes hearts to react to one another. The HeartMath Institute published Rollin McCraty’s The Science of the Heart, which explains this synchronization: the electromagnetic field of the heart was not only an intrapersonal mode of communication, but also interpersonal. McCraty clarifies this distinction:

Most people tend to think of communication solely in terms of overt signals expressed through facial movements, voice qualities, gestures and body movements. However, evidence now supports the perspective that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic or ‘energetic’ communication system operates just below our conscious level of awareness. (38)

The idea of this type of communication system falls under the theory of the “holographic heart,” based on studies conducted by Karl Pribram that conclude the information processing occurs not in our conscious level of awareness but in “the spectral domain of energy frequency” (McCraty 57). This is scientific jargon for an idea that has actually been part of our social vocabulary for some time now. What scientists call “the spectral domain of energy frequency,” we commonly refer to as “vibes.” An individual’s electromagnetic field can be sensed by anybody within a four-foot radius, and the feelings that this field most clearly communicates are those of appreciation, or attraction, and repulsion. That is because those two emotions have the clearest pattern of heartbeats (as shown in the picture below).

Image 2: (Mccarty 19)

A discoherent, “frustrated” heartbeat, apart from signaling anxiety to the rest of the body, also signals “bad vibes” to surrounding bodies. Likewise, feelings of appreciation are also communicated to those around, resulting in “good vibes.” The evolutionary benefits of this subconscious mode of perception are bountiful; organisms who were able to sense the underlying emotions of surrounding community members were better at sensing which individuals to trust. This also allowed people throughout the ages to sense hidden attraction, which, due to cultural or social preconditions, might not have been consciously externalized. That’s right—evidence suggests that our heart does speak, and the hearts of all those around us are listening.

So our hearts reveal attraction without any input from our minds. That still doesn’t explain the most tantalizing question: why? Why do our hearts react strongly to certain people, even when our minds don’t want them to? The answer could take us back to the mushrooms. Like fungi and animals, human beings also communicate to each other through scent or, more precisely, through pheromones. There are many definitions of pheromones that have been contested, but a classic definition is that pheromones are chemical agents that transmit information of the biological makeup of one organism to another (Yuhas). Up until recently, the absence of a pheromone-processing organ led scientists to believe that pheromones had little to do with our mate selection. However, this was revealed as a misconception when scientists began questioning how women within tight knit communities develop synchronized menstrual cycles. Like heartbeat synchronization, menstrual synchronization also indicates some form of unconscious communication of a woman’s fertile state.

The explanation was discovered after a series of experiments by Grammar K. and Miller EM, which discovered that pheromones were the source of human socio-sexual communication. This and other studies were examined in Karl Grammer’s “Human Pheromones and Sexual Attraction,” where past studies alluding to a strong connection between pheromones and attraction were compiled and tested from biophysical perspective. The conclusion? That pheromones have a strong, though subtle, impact on our body’s reaction to potential sexual partners. Multiple theories have surfaced explaining how and why this mechanism has developed, many focusing on the pheromone’s ability to instantaneously inform potential mates of a woman’s fertility or a man’s immunocompatibility. Other studies acquired data concluding that a specific pheromone, namely the scent of symmetry, is “an honest indicator of male genetic quality” (Grammer et al. 139). Pheromones are able to communicate information that individuals are not even aware of, including information regarding compatibility that would result in the best possible offspring. Individuals’ self-reported and physiologically-recorded responses show signs of the attractive quality of pheromones, meaning that our bodies are uncontrollably more drawn to people who are healthy matches for us. We aren’t so unlike mushrooms after all.

To downplay the psychological motives behind attraction however would result in a gross underestimation of our subconscious’s impact on mate preferences. Over time, a theory has arisen in popular culture that couples tend to look like each other. The underlying idea, first proposed by Freud under the title of “The Psychoanalytic Theory of Mate Selection,” is that individuals are attracted to people who look like themselves because their opposite sex-parent (who tends to share similar physical characteristics) is their template for a sexual partner. Mate template-matching theory, revised since Freud, states that since our parents are the primary introduction to romance in life, they become the standard to which we compare all potential mates. A study performed by SUNY professor of psychology Glenn Geher aimed to test, once and for all, whether this theory could be supported by data. The test studied personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness, and even neuroticism. It included insight from various sources for each subject, their lover, and their parents in order to avoid response bias and prejudiced self-perceptions. The statistical results for personality trait correlation in this study left little room for doubt: “People’s significant others’ actual personalities and attachment styles are similar to the actual personalities and attachment styles of both their opposite and same sex parents” (199). This does not apply solely to personality; physical trait similarities, including hair and eye color as well as a variety of facial and physical characteristics, between love interests and opposite-sex parents have also been affirmed (Little 48). This means that though it may be unreasonable for us to be attracted to certain people, like those with unfavorable, toxic characteristics such as neuroticism, we may still find ourselves drawn to them for unconscious, psychological reasons. This is yet another way in which our unconscious trumps reason in the domain of attraction.

This is not to say that reason has no part in our mate selection. Quite the opposite—Freud himself considered our potential mates to be “conscious choices” we make in regards to context and reasonability (169). Contemporary psychologists included in Sternberg’s The Psychology of Love theorize that even the most intense and passionate attraction will end when the lover is convinced of the futility of their attraction (125). Likewise, reason is often a good determinate of the power interactions between two romantically involved individuals. Our physiological attraction might lead us to people who we might consider to be “ideal.” However, research proves that romantic relationships with mates we consider ideal are likelier to be less successful in the long run than those between individuals of similar socioeconomic backgrounds (Conroy-Beam). Even though we might be attracted to individuals that rank higher than us in status, our reasoning distinguishes between people within or outside of “our league” in such a way that ensures power stability in our relationships. This means that if your mind concludes someone is way out of your league, it is doing it for your own well-being.

On the other hand, strong physiological responses of attraction to an individual can foreshadow a long-term growth of affection for that partner, as seen in Bianca P. Avecado’s study of neural correlates (771). Psychologists McCraty and Grammer also believe that physiological attraction can signal trustworthiness and immunocompatibility, which leads to healthier children This information, though limiting our conscious free will, is not a sign that we should renounce all common sense and trust our bodies to choose our mates for us. We are not mushrooms. Though our bodies have evolved to seek and attract mates without our conscious awareness, physical satisfaction is only one of many components of the human self. The choice to commit an entire lifetime to someone based on romantic and erotic love alone is a relatively new idea, and attraction is only the beginning of the overwhelmingly complex psychological and physiological communications between long-term partners. This means that it requires every component of the mind and body to sustain such a love; therefore, sooner or later, a conscious decision, not unconscious motives, will bring two people together. The direction in which our roots grow, probing the darkness for some source of comfort and warmth, is not solely guided by primitive mate-selection methods. We are humans. We are complex, we are deep, we know what we want, but maybe not all of this knowing falls under the title of “reason.”

Works cited

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