What is Love? Really, What Is It?

Welcome to the week of Love! This week, people will be hard pressed to find content on the blogosphere that is not related to some aspect of love – its creation, its maintenance, the problems it creates, and what happens after it ends. We will also see a whole spectrum of articles on tips and tricks for single people on finding that “perfect someone”, not to mention an explosion of commercials and advertisements on match-making sites.  Yet, in all these centuries, through all the advancements of humans, we would be hard pressed to find a single cohesive definition that is universally applicable and satisfying. 

loveispatientLove, across many aspects of life, is considered to be one of the driving forces of human existence for many reasons. It is believed by many to be the be most important thing in life; the glue that holds people together in social bonds. But, if you ask ten different people the question, “What is love?”, you are likely to get ten different answers from different perspectives. Which ones are right, and, which ones are wrong? Are there even right and wrong sides to this issue, or is it just all a matter of opinion?

Cultural Philosophies

ancient-love-nelu-gradeanuGreat thinkers in almost all known civilizations in human history have discussed and debated the idea of love. In the Western world, ancient Greek philosophers spent a considerable amount of time discussing the ideas of philia (friendship), storge (familial affection), eros (passionate love), and, agape (Divine, selfless love). Ancient Romans talked about “amare” (to love), a word that eventually evolved into the word for love in Spanish, French, Italian, and other Latin-based languages. With the rise in popularity of Abrahamic Judeo-Christian religions, these “pagan” ideas of love became deeply intertwined with the concepts of purity, sin and salvation.

On the other side of the world, in Eastern cultures and traditions, the idea of love has been debated and discussed for many centuries also. Scholars generally agree that the love seems to originate from religious and/or spiritual beliefs, from where it spread to other areas in life. Languages and cultures in ancient Persia, China, Japan, Pakistan, India and other parts of Asia and the Middle-East, all have a slew of words to describe love in its brightest glory to its deepest depths of misery, usually in relation to the Divine. We know this through records of beautiful poetry, elegantly crafted prose, paintings, reliefs, sculptures and other artistic treasures, which have managed to survive through history. In these traditions, love is a necessary part of human life, because it is a familial duty, a divine imperative for the greater good, and a necessary condition for the enlightenment of the Soul.

The Evolutionary Perspective

From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of love — the “bonding” that happens between people — is a byproduct of the two purposes of human species, survival and reproduction. As a species, we have evolved to have different sexual organs and reproductive systems with different costs, to maximize the genetic diversity available to us via sexual reproduction. In other words, the reproductive “costs” of having a child are different for men and women, which translates into men and women developing different strategies to attract the best mates.

When we meet potential mates, we evaluate them based on the resources they can provide for us in the short-term, and in the long-term. For men, the cost of reproduction is really low, because the male body can produce an almost infinite number of sperm throughout the course of life, starting at puberty. Thus, the most important criteria are those characteristics that show fertility, virility, and health – the symbols of youth – because they are more likely to create a greater number of healthier offspring. For women, the cost of reproduction is really high, because women are not only born with a limited number of eggs, but they lose these eggs over a lifetime. They also have limited time in which these eggs can be fertilized. In addition to that, each pregnancy lasts between 9 and 10 months, meaning that during this time, a woman is physically incapable of getting pregnant again. This reduces the number of potential children a woman can  have, to one per year (not counting cases with multiple births). For women, the traits that are important to them are those that would ensure the availability of resources for them and their offspring.

evlution-of-loveWhere does love fit into all of this? It is a just a natural consequence of these processes. In the course of this evolutionary reproductive dance, mixed in with other evolutionary mechanisms such as reciprocal altruism, and survival of the fittest, “love” is an interpersonal bond that just happens to happen.

The Chemistry of Love

Chemical_basis_of_loveMany scientists posit that the idea of love is a series of chemical reactions that happens in our bodies because of hormones.  When we meet someone who piques our interest, our bodies release many chemicals. The two that are important for this discussion are oxytocin, often called “the cuddle and trust” hormone, and, vasopressin, which regulates blood pressure and general cardio vascular functioning. Oxytocin, which is released in larger quantities in women, and vasopressin, which is released in larger quantities of men, are though to induce feelings of bonding and attachment. These two hormones trigger the release of dopamine, which causes feelings of euphoria, joy and bliss. In the first stages of “love”, these two chemicals are also associated with lower serotonin levels, which could explain why we might sometimes feel obsessive or manic when we are “madly in love” with another person. Other chemicals that are also associated with the process of love are norepinephrine, cortisol, and testosterone. The combinations of varying degrees of these chemicals is what love is.

Love: The Psychology

How we personally interpret these evolutionary, biological and chemical signals, is studied in the fields of psychology and other social sciences. Over the course of the last century, psychologists from many areas of specialization have been studying love extensively. For instance, social psychologist, Elaine Hatfield, considered to be a pioneer and way-paver of research in interpersonal relationships describes two types of love in her research. She defines passionate love as:

“A state of intense longing for union with another. Passionate love is a complex functional whole including appraisals or appreciations, subjective feelings, expressions, patterned physiological processes, action tendencies, and instrumental behaviors. Reciprocated love (union with the other) is associated with fulfillment and ecstasy. Unrequited love (separation) with emptiness, anxiety, or despair”.

The other kind of love is companionate love – genuine affection and liking for another person characterized by mutual respect and trust.

Sternberg's Triangle Theory of Love. The combination of the three factors leads to different kinds of love styles.
Sternberg’s Triangle Theory of Love. The combination of the three factors leads to different kinds of love styles.

Another well-known theory from psychology is Robert Sternberg’s Triangle Theory of Love. According to this theory, the ideal, or “consummate” love, is a combination of three key factors: passion, intimacy, and, commitment. The absence of one of these factors can still lead to relationships, but the most stable relationships will, or should have all three factors.

Other popular theories of love in psychology include Lee’s Love Styles, a six factor theory that is based on the Ancient Greek concepts of storge, philia and eros, and, the Two-Factor Theory, which divides the idea of love into its physiological and emotional components.

The Answers from Neuroscience

Modern neuroscience may soon be giving us answers to the question that plagues most human beings at some point in our lives: “What exactly is love?”.

Helen Fisher and her team, and many other neuroscientists from all over the world seem to be in somewhat of a frenzied discovery period, made possible by technological breakthroughs in imaging tools. Through fMRI studies, we are finding out that male and female brains can differentiate between romantic love and self-less love, and respond differently;  the effects of different forms of love on the human brain are very different.  We are finding out that men and women are influenced differently. We are finding out that it can be addictive. Studies on mirror neurons in the brain are even discovering that feeling and acting on love is a cognitive process that can be controlled up to a certain extent!

So, What is Love?

At the end of the day, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer on what love is. While medical and technological advances are helping people who are  in pursuit of the answer to this timeless mystery, they also seem to be raising more questions and issues about love than can be answered. But, are we kidding ourselves? Most of us can relate to the ideas of falling in love, and being in love. We can even describe in great detail all of love’s splendid and torturous aspects. But, if someone came to us and asked us to define it, we would probably spend at least a few minutes hemming and hawing about its definition. Is it even possible to answer this question in any satisfying way? Will we as a species ever be able to articulate the essence of what seems to be a magnificent influence on all aspects of life? Are we even capable of that? What do you think?


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