John Lennon once said “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create.”
To many people, John Lennon among them, love is the mystical force that makes life worth living. For millennia, human beings have experienced the joys and sorrows of love, and through it all, love remains a powerful and mysterious force in our lives. The modern world, however, in some ways attempts to draw back the curtain on love, providing scientific evidence about how love affects the brain. This brain-based perspective on love can be both illuminating and confusing, much like love itself. As Einstein put it “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
To some people, it may seem silly to do scientific research on something as transcendent as love. Science can appear as a heartless and pragmatic investigation of the world, moving rationally from one topic to the next, analyzing, defining, and constructing a neat conceptual framework that puts us at ease. But for many people, including many professional scientists, it is the sometimes irrational curiosity and joy of exploring the unknown that drive us toward deeper investigation of even the most transcendent of topics.
Take the science of love, for example. According to Tanya Lewis, who wrote on Live Science: “scientists actually have a pretty good idea of what love does to the brain.” According to her, scientists have analyzed and organized the experience of love into three stages of brain activity: lust, attraction, and attachment. Here are a couple key points from her article:
- Being in love floods the brain with chemicals and hormones that produce feelings of pleasure, obsession, and attachment
- During the lust phase, hormones flood the body with feelings of intense desire
- A serotonin drop could explain why lovers exhibit such single-minded attention to the object of their desire
- After people have been in love for some time, the body develops a tolerance to the pleasurable chemicals. The attraction phase gives way to the attachment phase
Scientific research on love raises some interesting questions. Does the fact that we can identify chemical processes that occur in the brain alter what love means in our lives? As we investigate the deeper workings of the brain and identify which hormones make us feel love, can we still say that “love,” as we once thought of it, really exists at all?
Skeptics might say, “at its essence, love is nothing more than a chemical process in the brain, evolved toward procreation and the survival of the species.” But love, like a rose, has a way of transcending not only our words but also our rationality.
Even though we can define the physical processes of love in the brain, the experience of love defies description, just as all feelings and emotions often defy description. Words, in their rational capacity, can only get us so far; much like logic, they are limited by the nature of the conscious mind. Perhaps that’s why poetry often seems to get the closest to describing the essence of the experience of love.
Rather than stripping love of its power, the understanding of how hormones and the brain operate actually increases the mystery of love. It’s important not to confuse the mechanisms of love with the phenomenon of love itself. In that sense, knowing “what love is” is like knowing “what life is,” in that whatever definition we provide is almost meaningless in light of the actual experience. And so love, like life, is in the doing.
To love is far more important than to know what love is, just as to live is more important than to know what life is. In identifying what happens in our brains and bodies when we love, we are not so much capturing love as we are peeling away another layer of what love is not, a mere collection of feelings and desires. The deeper we go in understanding how love affects our brains, the greater the reverence we should have for the essence and mystery of love itself.