Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Love, sex and drugs

Valentine's Day is as good a day as any to reminisce about our first love, first kiss and drugs

Even as you mutter sweet nothings and give in to all the razzmatazz that accompanies Valentine’s Day, I’m willing to wager you remember every little thing about the first time you fell in love and the moment you first kissed.

By the time I was in Class X, pretty much all of the boys had started discussing their exploits with girls and the magic that it is to be with one. I couldn’t help but feel wistful because the “right one" hadn’t come along yet. I must confess to being a late bloomer and Class XII is when it happened for me.

My eyes can’t forget seeing her for the first time. She had shoulder-length hair, wearing a floral top and faded blue jeans. She spoke in an accent that originated from what was then called South Bombay. She was as tall as I was. The high-heeled shoes she wore made her look a little taller.

She was petite, svelte and straight out of a Vikram Seth poem. Not that I had read Seth then. But in hindsight, this sounds just right to describe me setting my first gaze on her:

In a clear brook

With joyful haste

The whimsical trout

Shot past me like an arrow

I play the line of the song, I play the leaps and plunges of the right hand of the piano, I am the trout, the angler, the brook, the observer.

I tried awfully hard to get her attention. I failed. There were others in the fray and they seemed infinitely smarter and better looking than me. All of that changed when the stars conspired and our class was taken on an overnight field trip to the outskirts of Mumbai.

As marinated kebabs and paneer were thrown into the mandatory bonfire to cook, guitars were strummed and talented counterparts crooned, I continued to look wistfully at her. Until, that is, a part of me argued if I continued to look and do nothing about it, one of those cooking and crooning jokers would have her and I would end up singing tragic songs to mend my broken heart.

So, with much trepidation and a faux confident look, I walked up to her and asked if she would like to go out for a walk with me to stare at fireflies in the night. I thought it a romantic opening line. I suspect my pants fell off when she smiled shyly and said yes.

What I thought would be an hour-long rendezvous ended in the wee hours of the morning when we finally thought it was time to get back to base camp. How can I forget my hand grazing hers, so very deliberately, and so horribly unsure whether to hold it or not! If I weren’t younger, I would have died of a cardiac arrest.

There was no stopping me after that. Academia be damned. All of my waking hours were devoted to writing poetry that may impress her, thinking up conversations she may find interesting, anything, everything, to have her. I was in love—for the first bloody time. It was inevitable then that I ached to kiss her for the first time.

The stars conspired in my favour yet again. We had migrated from talking about all things pointless that I thought may impress her to walking around the lovely promenade that is Marine Drive in Mumbai.

After one such long walk, we sat down to stare at the sea. The moral police hadn’t descended on the city yet and this was one of those few places that offered couples their privacy. In an act of gumption, I put my left hand over her shoulder.

I suspect she smiled shyly and snuggled closer to me. It was only a matter of a few moments before our eyes locked. The act that followed was a spontaneous one. Our lips locked and we kissed.

What happens when we kiss? Philosopher Alain de Botton describes that moment with much detail in his lovely book How to Think More About Sex.

“Then comes the kiss. The deeply private realm of the mouth—that dark, moist cavity that no one else but our dentist usually enters, where our tongue reigns supreme over a microcosm as silent and unknown as the belly of a whale—now prepares to open itself to another. The tongue, which has no expectation of ever meeting a compatriot, gingerly approaches a fellow member of its species, advancing with something of the reserve and curiosity exhibited by a South Sea islander in greeting the first European adventurer. Indentations and plateaus in the inner linings of the cheeks, hitherto thought of as solely personal, are revealed as having counterparts… It could sound disgusting—and that is the point… The privileged nature between the union of two people is sealed by an act, that with someone else, would have horrified them both."

I don’t know about her. But I do know when that passionate moment was over, I could barely walk. My knees were all wobbly. The mind was in a haze. Our hands clasped tightly, we walked in silence. We hailed a taxi, sat quietly through the ride, our hands still clasped.

Once at her place, we got out, I waited until she walked through the gate into the lobby of the building where she lived, turned around, bid a knowing smile, threw a flying kiss and walked slowly to the lift that would take her home, on the 10th floor. I walked back to the nearest train station, robotically got into a local train until I was home, skipped dinner and got into bed without uttering so much as a peep.

Every moment of the moments in the months that led to the evening is etched in my memory. And that’s why I have described all of this in excruciating detail. It is only fair on your part then to ask me what the larger point is.

Very recently, I stumbled across a blog post by Julia Shaw in the Scientific American. The post draws from the findings of a 2015 paper by Kayo Takahashi and team that posits passionate love and sex have a significant impact on long-term memory. Not just that, it has “disorienting effects" and is “highly pleasurable". No rocket science there.

What caught my attention in the paper was this line that described the purpose of a kiss and the sex that eventually follows: “Our aim was to learn whether there is any increase in dopamine release during phases of romantic love in humans, and whether the increase could be localized to specific areas of the brain."

As Shaw interprets it in her post, “Kayo and team looked into the brains of people who were in the early stages of romantic relationships, and they found that when shown pictures of their romantic partners, participants experienced a flood of dopamine to parts of their brains. As it turns out, brains need to release dopamine in order to store long-term memories."

Dopamine is a chemical signal in the brain that carries information from one neuron to another. As chemicals go, it has a hopelessly complex job to perform because an addiction to anything—from music to drugs or writing and love for that matter—is inevitably accompanied by a dopamine rush.

Very crudely put, when engaged in an intense activity that offers much pleasure or joy, if you will, higher levels of dopamine get to work. And because there is enough evidence on hand that proves dopamine can enhance long-term memory, all explanations fall into place on why most people remember their first love, or encounter, in much detail.

But a few caveats ought to be filed here.

Caveat 1: It is possible to enhance dopamine levels in the brain through mood drugs—party drug Ecstasy being a case in point. But evidence exists that when dopamine exceeds a certain threshold, it causes memory impairment. So, stay off drugs. Love and sex are good enough.

Caveat 2: All memories are not true. What has been recounted above is from my perspective. To that extent, this story is my truth. If you were to ask the girl who was my partner then, her version of the episode may be entirely different from mine. Scientists have identified a phenomenon called fake memories and it can actually be implanted into somebody’s head.

Moral of the story: Love and sex are pretty damn good ways to create a chemical called dopamine that can enhance long-term memory. So, you can either love a person as much as you want to or have as much sex as you desire because both are, as neuroscientist Kayo puts it, “an all-encompassing experience".

Before I sign out to celebrate Valentine’s Day with my significant other, allow me to leave you with a deeply interesting thought.

There’s a not-so-subtle difference, De Botton argues, between love and sex. “It’s time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity. Both shouldn’t require us to lie in order to claim them."

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, a digitally-led media and learning platform for entrepreneurs.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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