A night at the opera – or how the myth of the love potion seduces both writers and scientists

The Glyndebourne Touring Opera visits Plymouth in the South West once a year and it’s a real treat to go to their productions. This year we went to see Donizetti’s frothy but very popular L’elisir d’amore. This was beautifully sung and played by the young cast and the production, directed by Annabel Arden, was slick and sexy, with plenty of laughs and a few naughty bits. The story is slight: unsophisticated country lad, Nemorino wins the heart of knowing beauty, Adina with the help of “the elixir of love” sold by the travelling quack, Dr Dulcamara. The elixir is purported to make the drinker attractive to all members of the opposite sex but is actually only cheap wine. Despite the lightweight plot, it was a charming evening and Donizetti captured my attention for more than two hours with his ever changing melodies. Here is a link to some pictures of the production.

Donizetti is not the first to have been captivated by the idea of a “love potion” and we find the motif frequently in both myth and in literature. One of the earliest examples is the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult: Tristan is sent to Ireland to collect Iseult, already betrothed to King Mark. Along the way, Tristan and Iseult ingest a love potion and fall deeply in love causing all sorts of problems. Wagner used this story in his opera Tristan and Isolde and the legend surfaces again in L’elisir d’amore; Nemorino hears Adina reading the story and this gives him the idea of using a love potion to win her heart.

Other examples of writers using love potions as plot devices include Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Sorcerer. JK Rowling used the idea in her Harry Potter books; her love potion, Amortentia causes powerful infatuation or obsession in the drinker.

It is, however, in a Hollywood movie that we finally see scientists confronting the love potion myth. The 1992 film Love potion number 9 introduces geeky biochemist Paul and his comparative psychobiologist colleague Diane; Paul has a secret crush on Diane but, as you might predict, his geekiness gets in the way. Paul is given a love potion by Madam Ruth, a gypsy palm reader, to help overcome his diffidence. He is sceptical at first but, when he sees the effect of the potion on the sex life of his cat, he enlists Diane’s help in “scientifically” analysing the potion; this includes shedding their lab coats and testing the love potion on themselves. The plot twists and turns, but all ends happily ever after for Paul and Diane.

Although the storyline in this movie is lighter than the foam on a perfect cafe latte, the idea of manipulating romantic attraction using a love potion is a perennially fascinating topic, which is why it continues to emerge as a plot device in fiction of all kinds. The same fascination may be what drives real scientists to investigate the basis of romantic attraction.

One of the more infamous scientific investigations in to the basis of romantic attraction is the so-called “sweaty t-shirt experiment” performed by the Swiss Zoologist, Claus Wedekind in 1995. Wedekind was interested in the factors that influence human mate choice and for his study he recruited a group of young men and women. The men were given t-shirts and asked to wear them for two days. At the end of that time the men were instructed to put their t-shirt in to individual but identical boxes. The women were then asked to smell the t-shirts and declare which they found most sexually attractive. Definite preferences were exhibited by the women in their choice of sweaty t-shirt suggesting that odour plays a part in male/female attraction. Moreover, Wedekind showed that the women tended to select men with dissimilar genes in part of the immune system (MHC complex). This could be a means of ensuring that potential offspring have a strong immune system.

Another, very recent, study from the University of Bonn examined a different aspect of romantic attraction, namely how the bond between loving couples is maintained. The work focussed on the role of the brain chemical oxytocin, dubbed the “cuddle hormone” by the popular media. Pair-bonded heterosexual men were shown pictures of their partner or of unfamiliar women. Before the pictures were examined, the men were given intranasal oxytocin or placebo and neither the subjects nor the scientists were aware of the treatments.

After receiving intranasal oxytocin, the men perceived their partner’s faces as more attractive, and there was no such effect when pictures of unfamiliar women were presented. The enhanced partner response was paralleled by activation of the brain’s reward system in a manner similar to that produced by some drugs. The authors concluded that oxytocin contributes to romantic bonds for men by enhancing partner attractiveness and so may contribute to human monogamy.

You can imagine that these kinds of studies might, in the future, lead to forms of love potion but based on another piece of fiction, we might want to be wary of the consequences. In 1974, Roald Dahl published a slightly risqué and slightly unpleasant book called Switch Bitch consisting of four short stories. One of these stories describes the efforts of Belgian olfactory chemist, Henri Biotte, to make a perfume, the ultimate love potion, which activates the nasal receptors corresponding to the eighth human primary odour, for sexual desire. His synthetic odour does what he expects it to do but when his co-worker sprays it over herself, Henri gets overexcited and suffers a heart attack as a consequence.

About Philip Strange

After more than 30 years as an experimental scientist, I decided to have a complete change and moved to the West Country. I now write about science for several magazines and web sites and blog at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/.
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4 Responses to A night at the opera – or how the myth of the love potion seduces both writers and scientists

  1. cromercrox says:

    I’m not sure, but off the top of my head, I believe that Wedekind’s results might have been questioned. There is a study (I believe) in which the human vomeronasal organ is shown to be rudimentary in the extreme. But then I haven’t checked.

    • Wedekind’s work is controversial but there have been some replications. You are right about the lack of a functional vomeronasal organ in humans and this makes it difficult to understand what the mechanism of any sweaty t-shirt effect might be. However, Milinski et al from Germany have recently published some work on how the MHC effect might be mediated. They showed that volunteers recognised the supplementation of their body odour by MHC peptides and preferred self to non-self ligands when asked to decide whether the modified odour smelled like themselves. They speculated that the MHC peptides are activating sensory neurones in the main olfactory epithelium, as has been shown in mice.