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Feb 10 2011

The Science Of Love: A Valentine

When science examines romantic attraction
(In other words, love and affection)
It uses the methods that serve us so well
But hearts can’t survive a dissection.
We study, in science, by breaking up problems
And looking at pieces and bits
Assemble the puzzle to show the big picture—
Assuming each smaller piece fits!
In life, we see love as a powerful feeling
It’s typically shared (say, by two);
You wouldn’t find love by examining neurons
But that’s something science might do.
A chemical cocktail assaulting the cortex,
Anandamide flooding the brain
Endogenous opiates running amok
And you’re either in love, or insane
Neurochemistry surely is crucial, I know,
But something important is missing
I’ve never encountered a brain, on its own,
With an interest in hugging or kissing.
Your genes play a part, I’m reliably told
By geneticists (likely, they’d know)
Though environment, epigenetically, molds
How those characteristics might show.
My heartbeat will race at the thought of your face
And my stomach gets tied in a knot
My fingers may tremble; my brow may perspire,
And other parts start feeling hot.
But none of these pieces can claim to be love
They’re mere tiles, in a larger mosaic
This modern view separates love into pieces;
My view is a bit more archaic
When I tell you I love you, you know what I mean:
Not only with all of my heart
Not only my brain, as complex as it is,
But all of me—every last part.
Looking through my blog stats, I have noticed the beginnings of the February Bump–the google hits for “biology valentines poem” or “scientific valentine” or the like (including charming misspellings).   And so, I give you this year’s offering.   Funny thing is, it looks like it is an argument against a science of love, and that is not at all my view.  I am very much in favor of using the power of science to study love; I’ve even taught a senior seminar, half of which was on love (the other half, war. go figure.).  What I am opposed to is reductionism masquerading as explanation.  Love is something that whole organisms (usually people, but if you’ve watched my cat…) do, not something that parts of organisms do.  A proper explanation of love is not one which points to neurotransmitters or hormones; if anything, that is the how of love, but not the what or why.
For the one-stop-shopping ease of my readers, allow me to link to a couple of earlier valentines: the one that gets the most hits is the Evolutionary Biology Valentine’s Day Poem.  It did make it to The Open Laboratory–the collection of the best science blog posts of that year.  Oddly enough, the previous year, Much Ado About The Brain? was featured in that year’s Open Laboratory (and it is a love poem, which explains the link), and the following year, A Scientific Valentine made the collection.  One I don’t recommend you use is What Do Women Want? (A Valentine’s Day Poem), but hey, if that works for you, go for it.  Lastly, one of my favorites that I will not give you permission to use is An Uncommon Valentine Poem.  That was for a particular person, and it is hers, so you can’t have it.
You have my permission, as per this post, to use these valentine verses if you wish.  Frankly, if you are in the sort of relationship where these are appropriate, you are an incredibly lucky person, and who am I to stand in the way of such a force of nature?  No payment is required.  However, having just found out that CuttleDaughter has been approved for a semester overseas, I would be tremendously grateful if those who use these verses and can afford to, would notice the tip jar over there to the right.  And, not that I’m voyeuristic or anything, but I’d love to hear about any positive (or humorous negative) reactions to these verses, if you do use one!

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Melissa

    The Hubby and I both prefer the idea of love being caused by brain chemicals and genetics, rather than souls or gods. We like the reality of it, the tangible nature of the components that make love so much more than just the sum of its parts. I also think it’s easier to rekindle those warm moments that keep love going when you realize there are tangible and concrete mechanisms behind them. I’m lucky I have a Hubby in agreement. I’ve met too many people dependent on the idea of love as some spiritual thing dependent on fate. I think that makes it easy to be lazy in a relationship.Love is a much more powerful emotion to me knowing some of the science behind it. Hey, you should put together a love poem book.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Thanks, Melissa! I do think a cuttlefish love poem book would be amongst the smallest of niche markets! I haven't seen anything close to my warped view out there.At the risk of being rude, I'm going to disagree with you and the Hubby (not to worry–it ends with a compliment): love is not *caused* by brain chemicals and genetics, but rather it is *accomplished* by them. It is caused, rather, by you (for him) and him (for you). And, yes, a history of learning, but the immediate *cause* of that neurochemical cascade is your loved one.Your brain never stood a chance. :-)

  3. 3
    Melissa

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing. I just think I used the wrong word to get my idea across. I guess what I meant is that knowing the physical “causes” behind the emotions helps us appreciate love more. For instance, those physical functions didn’t get going until my Hubby and I met. However, knowing the physical basis for the emotions we feel encourages us to keep them going. So many people fall out of love because they think staying in love is supposed to be as easy as falling in love. It takes work to sustain a relationship. Whenever my husband and I hit upon something that makes one or both of us get those wonderful brain tingles (and other more fun tingles), we remember it as a way to keep these feelings alive. A touch, a look, a kind word, an inside joke, an appreciation, an encouragement, small comforts, shared chores, and all the other little deeds that reinforce the reactions in our brains are more valued because we know these seemingly small things matter from a biochemical level on up. Does that make sense? I’m not a biologist and I don’t spend my time studying neurology. And I’m rather new to online communication, so I may not be expressing myself correctly. From what I do know, I’ve developed a sense of awe at the manifestations of love and friendship accomplished by the evolution of social animals. And you’re right. Our brains never stood a chance. :)

  4. 4
    Melissa

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing. I just think I used the wrong word to get my idea across. I guess what I meant is that knowing the physical “causes” behind the emotions helps us appreciate love more. For instance, those physical functions didn’t get going until my Hubby and I met. However, knowing the physical basis for the emotions we feel encourages us to keep them going. So many people fall out of love because they think staying in love is supposed to be as easy as falling in love. It takes work to sustain a relationship. Whenever my husband and I hit upon something that makes one or both of us get those wonderful brain tingles (and other more fun tingles), we remember it as a way to keep these feelings alive. A touch, a look, a kind word, an inside joke, an appreciation, an encouragement, small comforts, shared chores, and all the other little deeds that reinforce the reactions in our brains are more valued because we know these seemingly small things matter from a biochemical level on up. Does that make sense? I’m not a biologist and I don’t spend my time studying neurology. And I’m rather new to online communication, so I may not be expressing myself correctly. From what I do know, I’ve developed a sense of awe at the manifestations of love and friendship accomplished by the evolution of social animals. And you’re right. Our brains never stood a chance. :)

  5. 5
    warren

    "We study, in science, by breaking up problemsAnd looking at pieces and bits…"That rhyme didn't end the way I expected it to.

  6. 6
    warren

    "We study, in science, by breaking up problemsAnd looking at pieces and bits…"That rhyme didn't end the way I expected it to.

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