Saturday, December 27, 2014

Is love merely a biological drive?



I recently saw a lecturer on Ted Talks explain how romantic love is not an “emotion,” but rather, a drive that invokes a cascade of emotional states, both pleasurable and painful. (It was a 15-minute talk that covered a lot of other topics about brains and love — a very worthwhile presentation. You can watch it here.) It’s a technical-sounding, yet very meaningful clarification.

That researcher, Helen Fisher — an anthropologist who also goes into detail on biology — noted that brain scans of people thinking about the person they love light up in the same ways as under the influence of cocaine. This frames romantic love as sort of a mind-altering addiction, bringing feelings of gratification that go hand-in-hand with feelings of withdrawal and absence.

Yikes. Seeing love that way is hardly “romantic,” but good to know.

Many people today, or, at the very least, most Americans, mythologize romantic love into a pseudo-spiritual process of finding your “soul mate” or “perfect match,” as if the emotions that come with love churn out of the universe as a divine indicator of compatibility.

In that construct, having “good chemistry” with someone is a sign of compatibility, whereas a lack of chemistry means incompatibility. Yet anybody who’s been around the block a few times and managed to learn from it starts to realize compatibility is not a given, or even probable, when you’re newly in love. We’ll all probably fall in love many times in life but can only have one lifelong relationship, if that. That disconnect could explain why the United States has such a high divorce rate. 


I think romantic love makes more sense when you can look it at it in multiple ways, including this very crude one: if your brain is like a complex computer, romantic love is just a program. Under a certain set of circumstances that trigger it, it’s as if someone opened a command prompt and typed in run program: fall in love. That program will then unleash a series of mental and emotional states corresponding with stages and perceptions in love.

If allowed to run their full course, the program will go on for up to a year and a half before it gently ends. You’re left with your acquired intimate knowledge and trust for a person — perhaps an ongoing monogamous relationship. Perhaps some other kind of relationship. Or, the program could could be (painfully) terminated prematurely by rejection.

I understand that’s a very mechanical and uninspiring way to look at something that can be one of the most profound, memorable and important experiences we use to attribute meaning to our lives. Yet seeing romantic love realistically liberates us from constructs that block us from loving as much or as often as we could. 


I’ve been fascinated by the biological process of romantic love for a long time. Like most people, I struggled a lot through with romantic relationships in my late teens and early 20s, not because I couldn’t get into them (I could) or enjoy them (I did) but because of the emphasis I gave to the parts that were negative. I’d been in love many times, but felt unsuccessful.

The intensity of the emotions that come from romantic love, without the stabilizing force of strong social approval for love within my sexual orientation, was overwhelming. Like a lot of young gay men I had an added sense of urgency, expectation and self-doubt that made romance, aside from fleeting moments of bliss, generally pretty painful and discouraging. I can imagine how transformative it would have been to shift my perspective during those experiences, rather than after the fact.

Since then, seeing romantic love as merely a process in the brain brought me to some profound insights: 


It’s easy to get lost in the idea that love is some sort of mystical energy that joins two people together. I’ve seen ministers standing at the altar at weddings describe love as exactly that. After all, love’s jolts of euphoria or pangs of withdrawal are dependent on another person’s choices. Yet the place where all of your pain and pleasure is happening is in your own brain, nowhere else.

Of course what romantic love seems like is that it matters a whole lot that the other person loves you back. If you’re insecure, it can seem like it matters even more than your own honest reflection of whether you actually love this person. But another person’s emotions are unknowable; you only know what you’re told or shown.

When you love someone — and this is the cornerstone of all what have learned — what you’re really looking for is not the unknowable emotions of another person, but merely to feel welcomed in expressing it.

When you feel welcomed to express your love, the program in your brain rewards you with extreme pleasure every time you do something out of love. When someone doesn’t want you to love them, that’s the agony of rejection. Think about it: do you feel a bigger rush of pleasure when you say “I love you” or when you hear it back? Most likely, hearing “I love you too” is just the confirmation you needed. The real pleasure is just being able to say “I love you” and know it makes that person feel good.

With that cleared up, there’s no longer need for jealousy or for fear about letting the feelings flow. 


The cultural narrative of romantic love as “finding the one” with whom you’ll “live happily ever after” brings a sense that love is only of value if it leads to a lifelong relationship. If it ends in separation or loss, within that paradigm it’s an emotionally-devastating failure. That’s a tragic way to look at it; all relationships end eventually, if not in separation then in death. Yet we hope to think of them as important and good.

Remember, romantic love is happening in your brain. It’s a biological drive. The value is in the enjoyment of it and the meaning we attribute to it, especially as the experience is uplifting and a source for wisdom and creative energy. There’s no reason to deny yourself the experience, even if you know the relationship will be limited or temporary. 


When you feel love, you want to believe the person you love is one of the best people in the world, worth being among the very select few you’ll ever feel that way for. The flipside is that it suggests all the other people in the world aren’t worth your love, or that you aren’t worth it if your romantic love isn’t returned.

In reality, that run program: fall in love script is initiated in the brain by triggers. It is prejudiced by your psychological availability for it, your choice to allow it to become robust, your past experiences, the setting, and chance. Maybe a casual comment evokes an unexpected connection, an introductory hug feels, for whatever reason, uncommonly warm, maybe you’re in a particularly romantic atmosphere, with good lighting or you’re drunk. Whatever the circumstances, they spark a process that might not have started at a different moment or setting, even with the same person.

And once the process is sparked, you begin to disregard new information that would have prevented an attraction from developing: you might look beyond it when you discover that the person you love doesn’t have your preferred body type, or doesn’t have the same level of confidence you initially thought you saw. This all means that falling in love isn’t only about a person’s attributes, but the order in which you learned about them. That’s the power of the role of chance in all this.

The same matters of chance apply to whether someone falls for you. It isn’t a judgment on you and there’s no reason to be excessively self-evaluative about it. When it happens, it happens. It could have happened with somebody else. What matters is the miracle that two human beings just began a shared experience that now ties them together and can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling for both.

Romantic love is a drive instilled through millions of years of evolution to form a strong bond. It’s part of the instinctive process by which humans form close, loving families and communities, a trait that, along with intelligence, gives our species such a powerful advantage over other species.

Because of this evolutionary origin, it’s instinctive to feel that romantic love should create something permanent. But evolution, which places a high priority on socialization and bonding, didn’t limit love to the creation of a traditional, nuclear family — those concepts were invented by religion and culture. The only thing your biology says about romantic love is that its progression will be towards a bond.

If your experience of romantic love “works out” and you end up forming a lifelong commitment with a partner, the run program: fall in love script will inevitably reach its end, typically after about a year. The intense euphoria and aversion to distance will subside, and the feelings of love will progress into what is hopefully a comfortable, positive attachment with someone you now see as a member of your personal family. But love can also progress into strong friendship, or even a happy memory, as long as neither party interprets that outcome as a personal failure.

It’s a process that inspires you to experience another person very closely, a chance to work out fear or trauma through intimacy and learn from the best of both your traits. It can also serve as inspiration for new creative projects, insights, learning, pleasure, personal growth and creativity. Romantic love primes the brain for enhanced perception, selflessness and emotional vulnerability. So why put a timeline or impose an outcome on love, and why not appreciate it for what it is?

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