More Than Just a Feeling: The Science Behind Love in (500) Days of Summer by Amber Donofrio

Class: Science and Philosophy of Sex and Love

Major: Writing, Class of 2014

Romantic love is eminent within human histories, this desire to look to another with devotion and understanding. It is, as anthropologist Helen Fischer states, “a universal human experience”[1], felt by anyone and everyone. Yet, despite the subconscious recognition that love is embedded in human psychology, few actually know why they experience these emotions or act as they do around the ones they love. We, as humans, are subject to the internal impulses of romantic love but are oblivious to the reasons for these impulses.
This obliviousness becomes apparent in Director Marc Webb’s film, (500) Days of Summer, in which the main character, Tom Hansen, attempts to gain the attention of Summer Finn, a coworker he is convinced is the person he has been searching for all of his life. Though he is unaware of why he is so attracted to her, his obsession manifests until he is certain she is “the one.” Thus, his love-struck consumption becomes projected on the screen, a reflection for the viewer of recognizable human behaviors associated with love. By looking at the film through a scientific lens of brain chemistry and evolutionary psychology provided by Helen Fisher and evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, however, one can easily gain insight into the reasons behind love. Each of Tom’s actions and decisions regarding Summer carry scientific explanations, and, subsequently, so do our own actions in real life.
As with most romantic comedies, (500) Days of Summer is a story of “boy meets girl,” but as the narrator himself remarks during the beginning minutes of the film, “You should know upfront this is not a love story.”[2] Perhaps this illustrates right away one realistic aspect of this specific movie: there may be love involved in the story to come, but that does not mean there is a happily-ever-after ending. Rather, the premise is centered around the disintegration of love and the imperfections involved in romantic relationships. According to Fischer, “A team of neuroscientists recently concluded that romantic love normally lasts between twelve and eighteen months”[3] and, indeed, the five hundred days Tom takes to fall in and out of love with Summer fits precisely within that timeframe. Although romantic love may carry a strong pull on our emotions, these feelings are often temporary as we bounce from person to person. Eventually, we settle down into a state of attachment, defined as “the feelings of serenity and union with one’s beloved,”[4] which far surpass the initial passions of lust and desire. There is, after all, a distinct separation between lust and romantic love: the former “evolved to motivate individuals to seek sexual union with almost any semi-appropriate partner,” while the latter “emerged to drive men and women to focus their mating attention on a preferred individual, thereby conserving invaluable courtship time and energy.”[5] It may not seem evident upon the onset of the relationship, but this distinction becomes clearer as the couple’s interests in one another strengthen or dissipate with the passing of time.
Of course, Tom is attracted to many of Summer’s characteristics and from the way she is presented in the film, his affection toward her appears seemingly inevitable. She is described as an everyday woman, her “height average, weight average, [and] feet slightly above average,” yet something is different about her. As the narrator explicitly mentions, “For all intensive purposes, Summer was just another girl. Except she wasn’t.” This effect is labeled by the film as “the Summer Effect,” some special quality about her that causes “18.4 double takes” during her daily commutes to and from work and a “212% increase in revenue” during her summer employment at the Daily Freeze ice cream shop. In fact, every apartment she rents is said to be offered to her at a lower-than-average value, and her quoting of the band Belle and Sebastian in her high school yearbook caused a rapid increase in album sales for reasons unbeknownst to the band itself. Thus, the film takes the traditional notion that one’s love acquires a “special meaning”[6] and literalizes it, making  Summer appear novel and unique to an uncommon majority of men. Her mere existence is special and different from the rest, which is one reason why Tom falls for her so readily.
Summer’s inherent novelty is also particularly attractive because of what Miller refers to as “neophilia,”[7] which is an attraction to uniqueness. Not only do novel experiences with others contribute to “increased feelings of relationship satisfaction and more intense feelings of romantic love,”[8] but novelty as a human trait also carries charm and mystique. It is an indicator of creativity that relates to unpredictability, and unpredictability is attractive because it indicates sufficient “protean behavior,”[9] which evolutionarily deals with one’s ability to strategically escape or catch prey for survival. At the same time, novelty also catches one’s attention because it is recognized as abnormal, which is crucial to “the effectiveness of nervous systems as behavior-control systems” that functions to “register violations of expectation”.[10] In other words, the existence of these “violations of expectation” indicate that one could pass the unpredictability and problem-solving abilities (to decipher patterns of randomness) onto future generations, which contributes greatly to survival.
Meanwhile, Summer is also alluring because she carries sufficient “fitness indicators,”[11] which relate to the minimization of genetic mutations necessary for successful evolutionary progression. She appears healthy with her “average” weight and height, indicating she is well nourished and capable of bearing children. Her beauty, unwrinkled skin, and creativity all indicate youthfulness, and the evident well-proportioned symmetry of her features displays her “superior genetic ability to combat disease”.[12] Likewise, several senses have evolved in humans which “respond only to signals of high attractiveness and high fitness,”[13] and these senses, along with “sexual ornaments,”[14] which are features like body forms and voice sounds shaped primarily by sexual preference for sensory appeal, all contribute to attractiveness by producing a means of marketing genetics, using “courtship as a form of advertising”.[15] Summer stands as the epitome of evolutionary success, her features formed from centuries of male choice through “sexual selection”[16] and her body at its peak condition and age for bearing young. She appears healthy and ready, which is significant because “we gather over 80 percent of our knowledge of the world around us with our eyes,”[17] ultimately choosing our partners greatly through what we see. According to this theory of sexual selection, it is only a matter of time before she selects a mate she finds sufficient enough to copulate with, and Tom is within those ranks.
Apart from fitness and novelty, however, two other factors—timing and proximity—also draw Tom to Summer. According to Fischer, “Love is triggered when you least expect it—by pure chance,”[18] and it is only when the time is right for you that you will notice a potential mate and fall in love. This is exactly what Tom concludes once he gets over Summer: that “you can’t ascribe great cosmic significance to a simple earthly event. Coincidence, that’s all anything ever is. Nothing more than coincidence.” He was ready for love so therefore fell in love, colliding with Summer by chance. And meanwhile, proximity, too, carries great significance in finding a mate, as “we tend to choose those who are around us.”[19]. This is due to convenience and because those are the only people we are aware of as potential partners.
Finally, Fischer claims that “romantic love is generally directed toward someone much like one’s self”[20] and Tom and Summer carry several similarities. Most apparent of these is their shared love of listening to the Smiths, but it can also be assumed that they come from similar ethnic, social, educational, and economic backgrounds based on their interactions with one another and their employment to the same company. Their overall interests are compatible as well, leading to long discussions on Bananafish, Magritte, and Night Rider, and they enjoy each other’s company well enough during trips to Ikea and art museums. According to Fischer, these similarities are often important because they relate to “fitness matching,” making it so “the fetus and its mother are [not] foreigners to each other”.[21]
Still, as Tom’s little sister Rachel bluntly remarks, “Just because some cute girl likes the same bizarre crap you do, that doesn’t make her your soul mate.” Tom may be focusing on the positive aspects in he and Summer’s relationship, but his total avoidance of their disagreements is where the trouble lies. While their interests are in line, their beliefs generally diverge. Tom is looking for a full-time relationship, fully convinced that love exists and that “you know it when you feel it,” but Summer feels opposite. Since her parent’s divorce when she was young, she carries the belief that “there’s no such thing as love” and repeatedly mentions how she’s “not looking for anything serious” in terms of relationships. Instead, Summer aims for freedom and independence, mentioning how she “doesn’t feel comfortable being anyone’s anything,” factors which Tom decides to ignore entirely.

 

At this point it may be important to mention the common behaviors of love that Tom experiences, leading him to disregard Summer’s mention of not wanting a boyfriend. Stuck in the throes of unrequited love, Tom is too far gone to even consider an alternative to Summer; he is certain they are perfect for one another. Not only does he give her “an abnormal state of attention”[22] both while she is present and while he is thinking about her, he also longs for “sexual exclusivity”[23] and analyzes her every word, shifting between hopefulness and despondency when considering the possibility of their relationship. One instance he even complains to his friends that he has no chance with her simply because she told him she had a good weekend, emphasis on the “good,” which of course means “she spent the weekend having sex with some guy she met at the gym.” He is jealous and possessive of her, wanting her to be his.
Much of these reactions Fischer attributes to natural levels of brain chemistry and how romantic emotions affect these levels. While in some instances lovers can experience a natural “lover’s high,”[24] feeling intense levels of happiness and excitement when asked about their beloved, other moments can leave them depressed or with drifting minds. These reactions are due to three specific chemicals: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. When dopamine levels rise, unwavering motivation and focused attention is produced, as associated with feelings of romantic love. This also leads to preference and the identification of the lover as novel and unique, as “dopamine has been associated with learning about novel stimuli,” and it “drives up levels of testosterone,” which consequently increases sexual desire.[25] Meanwhile, as both dopamine and norepinephrine increase, they trigger a handful of reactions from ecstasy and increased energy to loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Dopamine sometimes causes anxiety or fear, while norepinephrine could possibly “help explain why the lover can remember the smallest detail of the beloved’s actions,” because it is “associated with increased memory for new stimuli”.[26] Yet, as these chemicals increase, they are bound to cause levels of something else to decrease, in this case serotonin. “As levels of dopamine and norepinephrine climb, they can cause serotonin levels to plummet,”[27] and this could explain a lover’s daydreaming and obsessing, the inability to stop thinking about his or her beloved.
A similar reaction with these brain chemicals also occurs in the face of rejection, which could explain the consequent despair and rage. Studies have shown that “love and hate are intricately linked in the brain”.[28] High levels of anger can occur, a mechanism to release the energy previously used for courting in order to move on. The first stage of romantic rejection is protest, which Tom illustrates clearly when he ignores the flaws in his and Summer’s relationship and says he “wants to get her back” right after she breaks up with him. It also contributes to his high levels of violent jealousy, punching a man in a bar who is flirting with Summer because he feels threatened; he wants “to protect [himself] from cuckoldry and hold on to the vessel that may bear [his] DNA” by means of this “primordial male urge”[29] to fight. From there, however, this hope vanishes and Tom falls into stage two: resignation. The depression and despondency associated with resignation is attributed to decreasing levels of dopamine in the brain. As Tom continues to experience the stress associated with abandonment, the production of norepinephrine and serotonin also diminishes. He is left in desperation, feeling rejected and alone. Fischer mentions that men “are often more dependent on their romantic partners” as they tend to have “fewer ties to relatives and friends” than women.[30] Thus, Tom spends days in his room doing nothing, avoiding work, and living off of a diet of Hostess Twinkies and whiskey.
Yet, scientists have grown to believe there are good reasons for this depression; after all, it had to evolve for a reason. According to them, “the very high metabolic and social cost of depression is actually its benefit: one’s depression is an honest, believable sign to others that something is desperately wrong”.[31] While mentions of sadness may not trigger sympathy from others, an actual projection of depression is bound to bring attention, illustrating to friends and relatives that something is not right. Tom’s decrease in work performance causes his boss to confront him about the matter and try to help, and his friends call him nonstop while he is at home, worried. It is this “social support”[32] that is meant to help him get over Summer, talking about his problems with others so he can make positive changes to his life.
Meanwhile, this depression has another benefit: providing  you with insight. According to Fischer, “Mildly depressed people make clearer assessments of themselves and others” and this will help them “accept unhappy thoughts, make decisions, and resolve conflicts that will ultimately promote their survival and capacity to reproduce”.[33] Summer’s rejection causes Tom to reassess his life and his opinions. He no longer convinces himself that fate is the cause of love, but instead questions the existence of love at all, commenting how “It’s these cards and all the movies and the pop songs. They’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache… People should be able to say what they feel, how they really feel, not words some stranger’s put in their mouth, words like ‘love.’” He is bound to reality, no longer stuck under the ideologies of happy times that tend to cause lovers to blind themselves of misgivings in favor of a more unrealistic viewpoint of the relationship.
Indeed, sexual selection appears to have “favored ideologies that were entertaining, exaggerated, exciting” over anything pragmatic, tending to “distort verbally expressible world-models” of relationships and make them “more entertaining than accurate”.[34] Tom’s sister, Rachel, continues to be the voice of reason in his life, prompting him to “look again” at his relationship rather than simply seeing the good memories. She pressures him to ask Summer what she thinks of their relationship because “you’re just afraid you’ll get an answer you don’t want, which will shatter the illusion of how great these past few months have been.” Only when Tom feels depressed does he really follow her advice; it allows him to rethink all he has known of love and focus this energy on improving his life, following his dream of being an architect.
Romantic love is not just a phenomenon of human experience, but can be explained through scientific means. It is an emotion felt by everyone; a combination of actions and reactions prevalent to the human condition that we see continuously projected onto movie screens, written into books, and sung about in songs. (500) Days of Summer is one among many romantic comedies whose realistic reflection of behaviors illustrates how prominent a role these behaviors play in our everyday lives. We, as humans, are bound to love, and, according to Fischer, “We control the drive to love,” too.[35]  Although Tom’s expectations of Summer did not always align with reality, they did not stop him from trying time and again to make their relationship work. He was, as the narrator mentions, “intoxicated by the promise of the evening,” and it was a denial of reality that ultimately led to their relationship’s demise. Yet, not all is lost. Even though Tom now carries more experience and insight into love, these lessons do not take away from the magic of possibility. As he waits to be interviewed at an architectural firm, thinking to himself how “there’s no such thing as fate,” he comes upon a woman named Autumn whom he had never noticed because he “must not have been looking.” As summer ends, a new autumn is beginning for Tom, and from there he can continue his search for love.

Endnotes

1. Helen Fischer, Why We Love (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2004), 3.

2. (500) Days of Summer, directed by Mark Webb (2009; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation), DVD.

3. Fischer, Why We Love, 24.

4. Ibid, 24.

5. Ibid, 78.

6. Ibid, 6.

7. Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind (New York: Random House, Inc., 2000), 411.

8. Fischer, Why We Love, 194.

9. Miller, The Mating Mind, 397.

10. Ibid, 411.

11. Ibid, 104.

12. Fischer, Why We Love,105.

13. Miller, The Mating Mind, 140.

14. Ibid, 138.

15. Ibid, 175.

16. Ibid, 8.

17. Fischer, Why We Love, 43.

18. Fischer, 100.

19. Ibid, 101.

20. Ibid, 103.

21. Ibid, 103-4.

22. Fischer, 6.

23. Ibid, 21.

24. Ibid, 53.

25. Fischer, 52-3.

26. Ibid, 53.

27. Ibid, 55.

28. Ibid, 164.

29. Fischer, 177.

30. Ibid, 168.

31. Ibid, 171.

32. Ibid.

33. Fischer, 172.

34. Miller, The Mating Mind, 421-3.

35. Fischer, 208.

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