It’s neurology and anatomy and hormones, inside the skull and below the belt. It’s soaring music and glowing art. It’s intimately personal and cosmically spiritual. It’s sensual pleasure. It’s high-minded sacrifice. It’s the survival of our species. And it’ll be the death of ya.
In 1929, the great American songwriter Cole Porter was only the latest to pose the riddle: “What is this thing called love?”
Seems like it’s everything. Who isn’t yearning for it, seeking it, maintaining or repairing it, missing it or mourning it? Whose life hasn’t been raised to glory or dropped to despair and twisted into a pretzel by it?
Much of the world has dedicated Valentine’s Day to celebrating the infinite permutations of one little four-letter word. Let’s ask the experts: What is love?
Love is really all about brains, not hearts, according to neuroscientist Tarvez Tucker of Oregon Health and Science University’s Brain Institute in Portland.
We know this because of functional magnetic resonance imaging technology, Tucker said. A regular MRI is a detailed snapshot of the structure of the body — a 3-D X-ray — but a functional MRI shows activity. Nothing is handier for neuroscientists than applying different stimuli and watching different regions of the brain “light up,” she said.
Show somebody who’s newly in love a photo of their beloved to trigger fireworks in an area called the nucleus accumbens, Tucker said. This area has been called brain’s pleasure center, because it regulates pleasing sensations and emotions, and reinforces the behaviors that seek them.
What’s not lighting up in a functional MRI is also important, Tucker added. When you’re in that earliest stage of passionate love, the areas of the brain that judge, doubt and find flaws are out cold. Nobody home.
“It’s the deactivation of negative emotions and judgments,” she said. “That’s why, when you fall head over heels in love, we say that you take leave of your senses. It’s a perfect storm for love.”
Maternal love isn’t too different, Tucker added.
“That’s why mothers think their kids are perfect. Their brains are doing the same things that lovers’ brains do. They see no bad side.”
And people who’ve been paired up for years, or even decades, frequently continue to experience the same thing, she said.
“They may not feel butterflies in their bellies, but their brains are showing the same activity,” Tucker said.
The brain doesn’t discriminate about sources of pleasure, she added.
“The areas that light up when we experience romance also light up when we gamble, eat chocolate, have sex or take heroin,” Tucker said, adding that the power of love is really no different than the power of addiction.
This might help explain why opposites really do attract sometimes, Tucker added.
“There is a pattern of activation and deactivation that indicates that unlikely pairs may be more likely to feel that attraction,” she said. “If you think about the woman who turns your head, there might be something in her that’s very different than you. There’s a biological reason for that. It’s called diversity.”
The whole gene pool is stronger, hardier, more resistant and adaptable when unlike types mix it up, she said. European history is full of examples of problematic deformities, delays, diseases that resulted as royal families pursued alliances and fortunes through arranged marriages among blood relatives. The ill-fated King Charles II of Spain ended one of these lines when he died in 1700. He was famously frail, mentally disabled, infertile and had a distended jaw that made it hard for him to eat and speak.
Love and marriage
Does love make a marriage? It didn’t used to. Whether you were an aristocrat with an estate or a peasant with a hut, tying the knot has long been a mostly strategic matter of combining assets and managing inheritance.
“Marriage was for the purpose of producing heirs, so that property could be smoothly transferred from one generation to the next,” said Sue Peabody, a historian at Washington State University Vancouver. “Among the aristocracy then, it was more or less normal for a marriage to be ‘loveless’ and for men, and even some women, to take lovers outside the marriage.”
It was the rise of a middle class that made for a rise in companionate marriage, Peabody said. This is the real beginning of the “love and cherish til death do us part” business, which might even include sexual pleasure and companionship.
“But even in this climate, passionate love was seen as a fragile foundation” for lasting partnership, she said.
“Allowing young people to choose their own partners on the basis of romantic attraction” took hold in the Roaring ’20s, Peabody said. That was also when you saw women starting to enter the workforce and earn their own incomes, she added, leading to more equality, more independence and more divorce.
Tons of love
Love can get heavy. The sheer weight of “love” grew too much for the Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge last summer in Paris. Many thousands of lovers had etched or written their initials on metal padlocks, snapped those locks into place on the bridge’s grillwork and tossed the keys into the river Seine below.
The result — in addition to beautiful symbolism and a charming place to hang out — was 45 tons of padlocks weighing down the bridge, plus an estimated 700,000-plus keys in the water. The city unhappily cut off all of the locks and replaced the metal grille with plexiglass, so visitors and residents alike can see the river again.
Despite the locks’ removal, Deputy Mayor Bruno Julliard insisted that Paris remains “the capital of romance.”
For as long as human beings have been making art, love has been a main motor of their creativity. The Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient houses what’s considered the oldest love poem found: a tablet discovered in what was ancient Sumer (southern Iraq). It’s more than 4,000 years old and reportedly quite racy, full of pet names and talk of “bedchambers.”
Today’s artists still feel the power of love.
“The experience of love can be so varied: overwhelming, subtle, transcendent, illogical, painful, persistent, vexing and beautiful,” said Ridgefield poet Erin Iwata. “I can feel trapped by this big emotion bumping around inside of me, so I use poetry.
“Somehow, describing the time I woke my son to point out the constellations is more accurate than simply saying ‘I love my son,’ ” Iwata said.
But love also goes far beyond words.
“When words fail to express my love of my family and friends, the environment or a higher power, I sit at an easel and paint that feeling. For me, painting can be the only way to communicate such big feelings,” Walnut Grove-area painter Maureen Montague said.
The greatest poet in the English language seems to have said it all. Pick any aspect of love, and the Bard has offered a description more than 400 years ago.
• Adoration: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
• Lust: “My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives.”
• And more lust: “There’s no bottom, none, In my voluptuousness: your wives, your daughters, Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up The cistern of my lust.”
• Filial love: ” I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”
• Parental love: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, To have a thankless child!”
• Opposites attract: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
• Trouble: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
• Crazy: “Love is merely a madness.”
• Satisfaction: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings, That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
• In the groove: “If music be the food of love, play on!”
John Lennon said it’s all you need. His pal Paul McCartney concluded the entire Beatles story with this: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Years earlier, McCartney wrote that money “Can’t Buy Me Love” — but later confessed to a biographer that he’d had such a great time as a rich, young celebrity, the song frankly should have been called “Can Buy Me Love.”)
Jazz music got offbeat with a not-so-beautiful beloved in “My Funny Valentine.” Blues and country music cried about disappointment in “The Thrill Is Gone” and “I Fall to Pieces” and a million other brokenhearted tunes. And in 1980, The J. Geils Band offered this incredibly concise insight: “Love stinks. Yeah, yeah.”
It sure does. But it’s also sweeter than a rose, deeper than the sea, higher than the sky and, according to singer and modern-love expert Justin Bieber, “Bigger Than Life.” Really, it’s too big for definition. Words try to touch it. Sometimes, they succeed.
Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” the Bible says. Faith, hope and love are the three ultimate virtues, “but the greatest of these is love.”