by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on June 27, 2010

– The Home Chemistry Set.

Love at first glance, that irresistible urge to get to know someone, to find the “one”. That feeling that starts in our gut, makes us giddy, goes to our heads, and makes us do the darndest things. That thing we call magical: that chemistry that everyone talks about and agrees must be part of the package when we come together with another. It is the stuff of fairy tales, of Hollywood films, of legend. I hear about it in my office on a regular basis.

Yes, we’ve all heard about chemistry, at least the physical part of chemistry: hormonal fluctuations that bring us together with some but not all. Biological inscriptions which account for our choice of partners, what our children look like, what our moods are like- in short: chemistry as the magician of our biological identities accounts for how we love. This has been well documented by anthropologists, sociologists and biologists (check Helen Fisher, Ph.D.). As a psychoanalyst I have often wondered what the psychological ramifications of chemistry are. How does it manifest in our psyche?

Given the fact that our hormones are stirred at the particular sight of someone, or some thing (i.e. music, a poem, a painting, a sunset, a scent) what happens in our minds? What makes us formulate particular thoughts or bring forth specific memories? Why is it that when I smell Palmolive soap, I am transported back to my grandmothers’ kitchen? Or when I see a tall thin man standing in a particular way, I think of my father? Here’s my theory:

Chemistry involves the commingling of particular chemical elements. And, while some of these combinations can be miraculous, others are explosive. How like relationships, and the struggle to maintain separateness while being with another. How like, well, sex: that physical connection between two people capable of dispelling boundaries, stopping time, turn us inside out and potentially transform us. Chemicals are crucial, relational elements here. Can it be that the “chemistry of life” is activated through experiences which touch us deeply, sensually, in a primal way, evoking profound emotional and physical reactions which escape language but are nevertheless known to us?

I think so, and the answer must reside in our unconscious- that repository of memory, needs, wishes ,and desire. The salad spinner of  biology, personal history and culture. The scrambler of logic, reason and emotion. Our unconscious is responsible for our dreams, slips of the tongue, and maybe, chemistry.

Chemistry, does not need language. Its’ sensual narratives elude the preciseness of language, and demand our attention experientially. We see, smell, feel, taste and are transported by it. Chemistry bypasses articulation, and relies on a language all its own. It is felt, deep inside, a primal wake up call through our senses. It demands our attention even when it escapes our comprehension. Talking about this with a colleague, she tells me that she thinks of chemistry as a warning sign from her unconscious: as if she is encountering moments of her emotional history in the other that speak to her instantaneously. They bring the promise (or dread) of what is familiar. That instant communication is the spark of a chemical reaction. This mingling of chemicals can spark us to attention in an instant, and can open the door to the possibility of something new out of something old.

Many patients’ have described the experience of feeling at “home” with a lover. Of recognizing something that they cannot name, or pinpoint, but are nevertheless compelled by. At such moments language fails them, and they inevitably turn to a sensual description. It is as if, in the other, they have come into contact with parts of themselves, which are brought to life anew. The chemistry they feel, somehow enlivening those parts, and providing a connection, a bridge if you will, between known but yet to be articulated parts of the self. As in: “I never knew that I could be this way, and yet, it feels familiar, easy, natural”.

Such a combustion of elements happens not only between people, but also with various forms of aesthetic experience. Think for example, of poetry, and our relationship to it as readers. In poetry, we are moved by rhythm, intonation, vocal gesture –we are stirred by the poet’s sensory crucible. The poem itself moving us beyond its’ words, into our own, personal experience. Or take art, and its invitation for personal interpretation based on what it evokes in us.  Chemistry stirs us toward the object trouve, as the surrealists named it, an object that is found and appropriated for personal elaboration. Is that not what happens in love? The object of our affection eliciting the possibility of an intimate elaboration of ourselves? An evocation of the known and yet to be.

As relational beings, “chemistry” may provide us with a shortcut to a sense  of wholeness via the evocative other. Heralding the promise of the familiar within the new. Perhaps we awaken to the sparks of chemistry with (an)other so as to elaborate parts of ourselves which require the felt presence of a person in order to come fully into being. Chemistry provides a relational connection which sparks our desire to communicate and moves us toward a personal elaboration. Unconcerned about the end result, chemistry initiates a spark that enlivens the one through the use of the other, setting into motion an affective resonance previously inscribed sensually in our psyche. Furthermore, chemistry attests to the fact that there is specificity to the other (and the objects) we seek. The form of the chemical elements determines the kind of self-elaboration, which is activated through the use of the object. Thus we can think of those moments that are so powerful they overwhelm us and lead us to believe that some sort of magic has happened, as experiential attempts to achieve a specific self-articulation. Where the other is drawn in as a co-conspirator and a potential mediator of our experience. This is the sense in which the other is the object trouve, a found other to help us elaborate self. I am using chemistry to describe a powerful relational search which holds the promise of recognition and the opportunity to be known from the inside out.

Chemistry makes its presence known. I think Duke Ellington had it right all along: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.

* Want to read more about this? Check out  my journal article “Finding Home in (An)Other: Relational Chemistry” .

Colorful Beakers –

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Milena July 20, 2010 at 5:25 AM

you are saying that:
*Chemistry involves the commingling of particular chemical elements. And, while some of these combinations can be miraculous, others are explosive¨and it^s so true…….how do we spot the explosive ones and avoid them?


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