(Who Wrote) The Book of Love: An Interview with Dr. Gabriel Abend

It is often said that love is blind, but science has other ideas. Study after study, such as a recent one conducted using the dating app Tinder — suggests that love may be a bit more prejudiced than we would like to believe. People may describe love at first sight, but this almost never happens when encountering a random stranger for the first time. Rather, we tend to be drawn to someone who looks, thinks or acts the way we do — typically all three. We gravitate towards those who share our race, religion, and more often than not, social class — a concept known as “homophily.”

There is, however, some truth to the notion that opposites attract, as so many romance novels and movies suggest. Change can happen, and our perception of who we find attractive both mentally and physically is also apt to change — particularly as our society is rapidly diversifying. As a sociologist, Dr. Gabriel Abend of New York University is interested in problems like these — how our perception of love is shaped by society, and how our shifting cultural norms, in turn, shape society. Abend’s research isn’t about individuals’ feelings and experiences, he isn’t interested in what’s happening in the individual as these changes occur, but rather in the social bases of neuroscience, how neuroscientific knowledge is produced, received, and used. Abend believes that sociology and neuroscience can fruitfully interact with one another, as long as the conditions are right.

Brain World recently had an opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his latest research — on how the fields of neuroscience and sociology can complement each other. Primarily, how do scientists go about defining love when they perform experiments? An interest in this particular aspect of the human condition is prevalent in both disciplines — but in neuroscience, they are only beginning to scratch the surface.

Brain World: What led you to look at love from a neuroscientist’s perspective?

Gabriel Abendt: Many studies are about “the neural correlates of X,” “the neural substrates of Y,” or “the neural basis of Z” (sometimes that’s their title, too). I’m interested in what exactly these “neural correlates” are neural correlates of. So, I’ve been looking at how experiments try to get at social-psychological phenomena, such as love, morality, gratitude, religion, spirituality, creativity, trust, and empathy. I’ve also been looking at the assumptions that experiments make — specifically, their assumptions about love, loving, and lover and beloved.

BW: How do you describe the production of love?

GA: By “production of love” I mean a tripartite assumption that neuroscience studies tend to make:

  1. Love is the sort of thing that can be produced or elicited in the lab, as a response to the right kind of stimuli.
  2. Love can be represented or modeled as a discrete, temporally-circumscribed event.
  3. Love is an individual-level property; it’s a property or attribute of a person.

To illustrate, think of love as analogous to fear or disgust. It can be produced or elicited in the lab by the right kind of stimuli — for example, a rattlesnake. It happens at a specific point in time — you see the rattlesnake and get scared. It’s an individual property — you experience fear, the rattlesnake is only a trigger.

BW: Do you believe there is a path to understanding love in an empirical way?

GA: To understand love in an empirical way there isn’t one path, but many paths. I believe that methodological and epistemological pluralism is crucial to get good results in this area. Our data, theories, ideas, and methods should be diverse, if we are to empirically understand love (not merely “love,” as defined by one or another group). Sometimes you hear the claim that neuroscience is finally on the right path, getting at what love really is, getting at the nature of love in a scientific, objective manner (or at the nature of another social-psychological phenomenon). Further, it’s sometimes claimed that neuroscience is finally resolving social scientists’ and humanities scholars’ endless disagreements about love, as neuroscience has technical capacities that the social sciences and humanities lack. I’ve argued that these two claims are mistaken; they’re confused about what a brain scanner can and can’t do.

BW: Is there anything that neuroscientists and sociologists would agree on, concerning love? Would they define it differently?

GA: Both sociologists and neuroscientists are large groups of people, so few things are true of all sociologists, as a whole, and few things are true of all neuroscientists, as a whole. That said, neuroscientists have good practical reasons to conceptualize love in experimentally tractable ways. That’s their job. Sociologists use a variety of methods, including content analysis, in-depth interviews, representative surveys, and ethnographic observation. Their choice of method can have significant effects on their conceptualization of love — say, ethnographic observation allows for more flexibility than surveys.

Now, whatever your scientific discipline and whatever your method, whether you’re a neuroscientist or a sociologist, you have to start with some concept of love. You need some concept of love, so you can empirically examine it, as opposed to examining something else. I argue that this concept, whatever it is, will necessarily take sides in longstanding philosophical controversies. There’s no neutral position from which scientists can conceptualize love; neither natural nor social scientists can stay above the philosophical fray. Since such commitments are inevitable, we’re better off making an informed choice than unintentionally siding with one or another position.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.

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