What is this thing called "Love"?

  • Published14 Feb 2014
  • Author John Kubie

Romantic love is both psychological and physical. Although a complex conscious emotion, love has strong biological foundations.  The study of love, as with much of Neuroscience, crosses boundaries. Lucy Brown and Helen Fischer use both psychological and biological approaches to gain insights into the mystery of "love" and share their insights on the website The Anatomy of Love.

Lucy Brown,  a neuroscientist, and  Helen Fischer, a biological anthropologist, have worked together, creating the site, which explores and explains the anatomy and psychology of love.  The scientific exploration of "Love" is an example of what fascinates us about Neuroscience: that it explores the connection between the mind and the brain; between mental events their biological underpinnings. Few objects of study are more fascinating and mysterious than love.

Lucy is an old friend. At her urging I explored the website and found it terrific, containing expert-level information, presented in a clear and entertaining manner. This is precisely what Neuroscientists should be doing: spreading the discoveries and insights from Neuroscience to a broad audience (also, what brainfacts tries to do)1. I leave it to readers to explore "The Anatomy of Love" themselves.

Rather than summarize the site, go there and explore.

After I read through most of the site I emailed Lucy, asking a few questions. Here are her responses:

JK:  Why did you make the website?

LB: We wanted to make our experiments about brain systems accessible to a wide audience, and to get across the point that romantic love and attachment are important to our survival.  We've tried to make this point in scientific articles, to reporters when they call us around Valentine's Day, or to documentary film makers when they visit us.  But whenever we saw the result of what we said, we wished we could have written the article or cut the footage ourselves. So, we decided to begin to do it ourselves!

JK:Who is it aimed at?

LB: In general, it is aimed at the curious adult at all education levels: the person who goes to the Museum of Natural History or National Geographic's website.  We have found that this applies to people just below high school level to those with some college and to those with advanced degrees.  More specifically, it is aimed at three groups of people, adults of all ages, levels of education, both male and female:

  1. Those who have just fallen madly in love and want to know why they are feeling and acting so crazily;
  2. Those who have been in a relationship for a while and the spark has faded a bit-- we call it "In for the long haul;"
  3. Those who are heartbroken and don't understand what is happening to them and can't let go.

I find it fascinating every time I look at the statistics about those who visit  I just checked and in the last month we had from 1-1,162 visitors from 88 countries.  The top 10 were the US, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada, India, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Japan, Philipines,Šthen Indonesia and Albania.  It's wonderful.  Female: 63%. (Most months it's 50-50.  I think Valentine's Day has something to do with more women this month.) Ages 18-34: over 50%, but over 10% older. Thirty-three visitors last month were over age 65. As for their interests, most were music-, TV-, movie-lovers; news junkies and avid readers; gamers, technophiles, shutterbugs.

JK: Is this really science?

LB: The best of science.  Translational science.  Personal, immediately enriching science.  What is science?  Let's look at a few definitions from

  1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.
  2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
  3. systematized knowledge in general.
  4. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

The website presents facts and principles gained by systematic study. Biological and behavioral measures were carefully measured and correlated. The knowledge gained is interesting and even helpful to some people.  Not everyone, of course, but people have told us that this knowledge changed their lives.  It changed their attitudes about themselves.  Maybe someone had made fun of them for being so down-and-out when they were heartbroken, or so distracted when they had just fallen in love.  We tell them that this is a natural and important state to be in!  Nature designed a powerful system to get us to bond together.  It is probably a "natural" addiction, like hunger or thirst.  We don't have much choice when we feel it, just as we don't have much choice about thirst.

If you are worried that there is no science defining "love," there is a science of love!  Who knew?  I didn¹t until a few years ago.  Love/romance is not as amorphous as I thought.  Although Elaine Hatfield got the first Golden Fleece Award for her development of The Passionate Love Scale (she never applied for public funding again), she was a pioneer, like Joe Ledoux, who realized it was basic and could be quantified. Many others after her have continued to quantify and describe it.  My group's functional magnetic resonance imaging studies validated her questionnaire by showing that activity in a few brain regions correlated with the scores of the questionnaire, in a diverse group of people.  The questionnaire taps into a physiological system that is present in most humans, and responds systematically and predictably.

I just saw this quote in the NY Times today2: "I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy", Dr. Ornish writes. "Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery." The significance of investigating this state of mind, love, is obvious to most of the medical field now.  Forget Proxmire and his Golden Fleece award.  He was wrong.

JK: What are your goals? plans?

LB: Our goals are to enrich the quality of life for the general public and a wide variety of other scientists, not just to inform other neuroscientists and psychologists who happen to read our papers.  We want to emphasize the significance of our science.  We want to help people experience better love lives, which we think they can with this knowledge in mind.  Our motto is "Know Thy brain, Know Thyself, Know Thy Partner."  We are expanding the "Know Thy Brain" part by building a virtual giant walk-through brain as a linked website.  We will expand the "Know Thyself" part of the motto by adding questionnaires.  We want people to have fun with science, and to get all the protection and joy that a solid love relationship can bring.

Billie Holiday singing: "What is this thing called love?" Cole Porter, 19293

1Also see Lucy Brown's Valentine's Day entry on the Huffington Post, Why Does Valentine's Day Exist?

2NY Times, Feb 8, 2014: "Love Actually" Andrew Reiner.

3"What is this thing Called Love?" Is (was) a popular song written by Cole Porter for the musical "Wake up and Dream" (1929). It is also the title of a short story by Isaac Asimov, which I haven't read.

posted by John Kubie

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