Pretty convinced this post will be full of song lyrics which ties in nicely with my first point. Love is all around. We see it every day, many different shapes, sizes, flavours, mediums. It is everywhere. An incredibly prominent aspect within the arts and equally important within life and our biology. We see couples, families, pets, friends, all sorts of peoples with different relationships showing different kinds of love.
There’s unconditional love, unrequited love, familial love, platonic love and “the love that dare not speak its name”. Love of a food, love of a passion or hobby, we use it in so many different ways that it’s hard to describe what love is under a single definition. I would say that I’m focussing on romantic love, which in itself is an umbrella term which includes a few varieties of love.
So what are the constituents of love. Can we break it down in to a formula and sell it? Dating websites would argue that it is an algorithm based on compatibility due to interests, preferences and questionnaires. Some scientists would say its compatibility due to genetic markers that will give you the best possible offspring. This is going to be reductionistic as I feel all complex emotions are inherently impossible to explain as they exist within a place that we can’t really access. We can trace chemicals, physical responses and electrical impulses within the brain but we still can’t see thought and emotions are in themselves either irrational or evolutionary. But without further ado let’s get crackin’.
I initially tried to break this all down and categorise it under biological, psychological, cultural etc but I think it’s hard to separate them as a lot of it is very intertwined. We’ll start with some of the aspects of the brain, particularly the chemicals and such that flow through our bodies. We’re full of gooey stuff and crazy small things that do all sorts, among these are things like dopamine (delivering pleasure), adrenaline (pumping up that bpm) and serotonin (happiness). These are often associated with love and some of the reasons we ‘fall in love’. If you look at love through these glasses then you could almost argue that love is just the name we give to an addiction of these chemicals and the way the person excites them within you.
Alongside all these chemicals there’s arguments for how physical touch can help with lots of other things including recovery. When babies are in ICUs they often have little windows where the parents can stroke and touch the baby. Not only does this help the parents, people think that it also stimulates recovery to an extent. There was a study with monkeys, can’t remember who did it, where there were two ‘mother’ monkeys in the cage. One was made of wire and had milk, the other didn’t have milk but was all soft and lovely. The monkey only went to the wire ‘mother’ when it needed to feed and spent a lot more time with the soft ‘mother’. Whilst this isn’t necessarily about romantic love I would say that this applies to the physical intimacy allowed from romantic love and the comfort created from feeling next to someone etc.
Scent is also very important and there was another experiment, the “smelly T-shirt experiment”, which went to say that we are attracted to people through their scent as an indicator of producing better offspring. If this is the case it would make sense from an evolutionary perspective. The best way to ensure your child lives on and has children of their own would be by combining your genes with someone who has different genes so you’re not doubling up in any areas. Smell is also a super important sense as it bypasses the thalamus which processes most of the other senses. This is probably why smells can evoke such strong feelings of nostalgia or memory, even if we cannot place the scent or be sure of what it reminds us of.
Still with biology if you look at arousal, which whilst not the same as love definitely plays a part in attraction, some of the ways it manifests are involuntary again implying that aspects of love are some innate biological response.
Moving on to a more psychological approach I think it gets pretty confusing and interesting. This will also tie in a lot with more cultural and societal influences as they play a big part in defining our psychology.
One big part would be the fear of being alone. As a majority we’re a pretty social species. We’re born into, hopefully, loving families and for most of our early childhood and entirely dependent on others to survive. We come out super squishy and incapable of doing pretty much all except the most basic of things for ourselves. Alongside this you’ve also got societal pressures to pair up. It’s worse in certain cultures (particularly asian) but there is a general feeling of “what’s wrong with you?” even if it’s unspoken. Are you not desirable enough, do you have some weird dark secrets, are you from a ‘bad’ family? I think this probably leads to a lot of ‘forced love’ where you just kind of accept that you may not find the right person within time and therefore just settle.
With a stable partner you have a reliable consistency which takes one less worry away from the day to day changes that can occur. They will always be there. They offer a comfort and security that is reassuring.
Getting a little Freudian, but without the sexual implications of some of his ideas, the Elektra and Oedipus complex make sense. You grew up in a family, hopefully you were taken care of, love and a relationship worked with your parents so why shouldn’t you search for someone similar? This leads in well to the idea of love being more of a familiarity of feelings. If you grew up in a negative environment including abuse, emotional, physical or whatever, you may associate these things with love as it’s all you’ve known. With these faulty cognitions you then are doomed to put yourself in damaging relationships as people being cruel to you makes sense, finding someone who was kind and treated you well would be too alien and unnerving.
Romanticism. It’s a lovely thing and creates such wonderful pictures but probably creates a lot of disappointment. We’re incredibly impressionable, especially in our younger years, and we acquire all these ideals from movies, cartoons and happily ever afters. Love is magical, a cure all, who needs money and food when you have love? Unfortunately love alone cannot sustain you so you all need money and food. BUT as with the monkey, that feeling of comfort is as much, if not more, a part of living as feeding your physiological self.
There are so many comforting and lovely ideas within romanticism such as soul mates, coming into this world as a half and finding the other that makes you whole. One problem is that in search for this perfection with soaring strings and where shooting stars fly overhead as your eyes meet we could be ignoring a possible perfection that just requires a little more time and investigation to reach that point.
There’s totally nothing wrong with romanticism, I think it’s lovely and definitely something to believe in. You just need to make sure you don’t narrow your options by holding out for something like the movies as I’m certain you can find just as much perfection within a relationship that is found a different way
Can we explain what love is? Not really. Most emotions are so complex and they’re either irrational or a more primal instinct. We can talk about chemicals, learned responses, associations, cognitive paths and all that jazz but we can’t touch emotions. They’re abstract and exist in that crazy place between our brains and what I would argue could be a 4th dimension. Thought is a exists in a different realm to our bodies, but without them wouldn’t exist. To try and define the irrational is futile, just like arguing against any belief system, realistically nothing you can say should sway their mind. Irrationality is beyond reason and I think love should stay that way. Irrational, misunderstood, mysterious and complex.