Ask A Scientist: Love
ODYSSEY caught up with Thomas Lewis, MD, assistant clinical professor at University of California’s San Francisco School of Medicine and author of A General Theory of Love. He was happy to talk about his favorite subject.
Can you summarize your general theory of love for ODYSSEY readers?
Most people think of love as ethereal. A General Theory of Love describes love as an inexorable and overwhelming physical force in our lives. In some ways it is akin to gravity. It’s a presence that’s always acting on us, whether we wish it to or not, a force governed by rules that we can investigate and understand but cannot change. Love. . .changes the structure of our brains in ways that most people do not anticipate.
Have you done research into the differences in “young love” versus more mature love?
Young love and mature love are indeed different, and people have suspected that for a long time. Young love is an intense emotional experience, but for the most part, young lovers are concerned with their own very strong feelings — their own hopes, their own longings, their own desires — and not the specifics of the other person they’re involved with. The poet Rilke had some wise things to say about love, and one of the things he wrote was this: “To take love seriously, to endure it, and to learn it the way one learns a profession — that is what young people need to do. People have misunderstood the role of love in life, like so much else. They have turned love into a game and pleasant distraction because they thought that games and distractions are more blissful than work; but nothing is filled with greater joy and happiness than work, and love, exactly because it is the most extreme joy and happiness, can be nothing but work.”
What about your hypothesis that romantic love is based on the past that we hope to reclaim. Can you expand on that theory?
For better or worse, human love emerges from the attachment system, and one of the fundamental laws of the attachment system is that familiarity trumps merit. A child will prefer his own mother, even if she is cruel and unreliable, to an objectively much nicer, but unfamiliar, caretaker. Our “thinking” brain finds this curious and irrational, but to the emotional parts of our brains it makes perfect sense. When children grow to be adults and seek adult romantic partners, their romantic choices still take place within the attachment system. Adults involuntarily seek out partners who resemble — both physically and emotionally — their own parents.
What do you think of the various studies that link the way we feel when we are in love to various chemical pathways in the brain?
I’m constantly surprised that people find this surprising. . .. Everything in the brain — every thought, every feeling, every reflex — happens because certain selective teams of neurons fire, while others don’t. Neurons necessarily operate with signals that are part electric and part chemical. And so everything in the brain, in one sense, comes down to chemistry. Chemical agents exist that can paralyze just about anybody with intense anxiety and horrifying dread, and other agents exist that can make anxious people extremely relaxed. In one study, experimenters managed to make people more trusting by manipulating levels of a single neurotransmitter, oxytocin. And some artificial substances mimic the experience of being in love. . .
Inexorable — Not capable of being persuaded, relentless
Rilke, Rainer Maria (1875–1926) — German poet, whose verse profoundly influenced 20th-century German literature
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