Why do couples call each other honey or sugar or sweetie?
Why do your friends ask for a ‘treat’ when you announce a piece of good news about yourself?
More generally, why do people celebrate the way they celebrate? Why do diverse people of diverse cultures around the world eat sweets, chocolates, and other delicacies when they celebrate?
In this post, we kill all these birds with one stone.
Dopamine is the name of the game
Almost anyone who’s interested in the workings of the brain is familiar with this name- dopamine. It has a kind of rock star status in neuroscience. It is so famous that even if someone knows a teensy bit about the brain, chances are high they might’ve heard about dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in the brain when we experience pleasure.
Besides that, it is associated with movement, attention, and learning. But its association with the pleasure and reward system of the brain is what’s responsible for its fame.
In simple, non-technical terms, when you experience something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine and when your dopamine levels are high you get high- you’re said to have experienced a ‘dopamine rush’.
Okay, what has it got to do with anything?
Our mind is essentially an associating machine. Any information or sensation that it comes across makes it go like, “What’s similar to this?” “What does this remind me of?”
Our brains are hard-wired to gives us a dopamine rush when we eat something, especially if it is sugary or fatty.
Sugar because it’s an instant source of energy and fat because it gets stored in our body for long periods of time. This was essential for our survival in ancestral times when it was common to go days, weeks or even months without sufficient food supply.
What I’m trying to say is that tasty food gives us a dopamine rush. Consequently, our minds have strongly associated a dopamine rush with tasty food. So anything that gives us a dopamine rush other than food is bound to remind us of food!
Now love is a pleasurable feeling and lovers continually give each other a dopamine rush. When we love or are loved, we feel ‘rewarded’.
“Aha! I know that feeling?” your mind exclaims, “It is the same feeling I get when I eat good food.”
So when you call your lover “sweetie” or “honey” or “sugar” your brain is just recalling its ancient association. It’s not just romantic and sexual love, but anything that we like has a tendency to invoke this association. You only need to look at the language we use to figure that out.
A toddler who mispronounces words is considered sweet, you can tell a lot about someone by their taste in movies, when something good happens we want a treat, an attractive person is an eye candy, when we are bored we seek to do things that spice up our lives… I could go on and on.
The similarity between sex and eating
Sex invokes our brain’s ancient association of dopamine with food more than anything else. From an evolutionary perspective, survival comes first and when it is ensured, only then a sexually reproducing organism can look for mates.
Without a doubt, food plays the most important role in an organism’s survival. It can survive without sex, but not without food.
But, nevertheless, the dopamine rush that we experience due to sex is so high that it reminds us of good food more strongly than anything else.
There’s a reason why people “have” both sex and food. Upon noticing an attractive man, a woman may go like, “Umm… he’s delicious” as if she’s trying the latest ice-cream flavour and a man may be like, “She’s yummy” as if she’s the meal he last ate at a Chinese restaurant.
If both food and sex give us a powerful dopamine rush (because they are our core drives), it is safe to assume that anything pleasurable, other than food and sex, should also remind us of sex, just as it reminds us of food.
Again, to confirm this we need to look no further than language. It’s fascinating how people find things and ideas that have nothing to do with sex as ‘sexy’.
“Charity is sexy”, “Caring for animals is sexy”, “Free speech is sexy”, “iPhone’s latest model is sexy”, “Porsche has sexy looks”, “Honesty is sexy”, “Playing the guitar is sexy” and billion other things and activities.
Curiously, we rarely use the ubiquitous adjective ‘sexy’ when we’re describing delicious foods. A bar of tasty chocolate is just tasty, not sexy.
Calling food sexy seems weird. Perhaps it’s because, as I mentioned earlier, survival (food) is a stronger and more basic drive than sex and a stronger drive cannot remind us of slightly less strong a drive.