On Romantic Love
By Berit Brogaard
Oxford University Press, 2015
“So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love,” says Alehin, Chekhov’s main character in “Love Story,” “’This is a great mystery.’ Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a statement of questions which have remained unanswered.”
In recent years, however, cognitive neuroscience has served as a tool by which we hope to answer questions about mental processes. Performing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) under the assumption that our various cognitive functions can be localized to specific regions of the brain and, more generally, that thoughts can be reduced to material data, scholars have attempted to unravel the nature of love and other secrets of the mind. And so, despite the difficulty of formulating a conclusive, incontestable truth about love, academic work using fMRI-derived data by the anthropologist Helen Fisher, as well as the psychological studies about the “generation of interpersonal closeness” by Arthur Aron, have brought us closer than ever to elucidating the puzzles.
In the interest of uncovering love’s mysteries, in On Romantic Love, Berit Brogaard – a philosophy professor with a background in neuroscience at the University of Miami – seeks to answer some of our most intriguing and lasting questions. “Why do we fall in love with people who aren’t good for us?” “Is it at all possible to take measures to fall out of love?”
In response, Brogaard offers ancient wisdom and contemporary scientific explanations that are largely informed by neuroscience as well as psychological studies on love and other psychic experience. Throughout her chapters, Brogaard approaches love from various angles; she describes the chemistry of love, classifies it as an emotion, illustrates its rational and irrational justifications, and observes its various in-between states. However, despite Brogaard’s empirical, data-driven approach to describe elements of love, a major question eludes her scientific tools and remain unanswered at the conclusion of her otherwise thorough text – what exactly causes us to fall in love?
Brogaard’s description of love begins by summarizing the body of scientific knowledge about love’s “distinct physiological, bodily, and chemical profile.” In this way, she offers scientific explanations of symptoms we typically undergo as lovers – the increased heart rate, the feverish condition, sleeplessness, bouts of joy and anguish. For instance, if you are in the early stages of romantic love and experience these commonly reported symptoms, you might be interested to know that they are caused by the “hyper-activation” of the emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala:
This, in turn, results in the adrenal glands pumping a surge of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the bloodstream. Via the bloodstream, adrenaline releases heart and breathing rates, noradrenaline products body heat, making you sweat; and cortisol provides extra energy for muscles to use.
In addition, the feeling of euphoria you may be savoring is a result of the brain’s release of the neurotransmitters “serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline,” which, as the anthropologist Helen Fisher has previously observed, resembles the “brain chemistry” of “cocaine use.” Much of Brogaard’s attention is also devoted to the physiology of lovesickness, or “love obsession,” that is, a combination of “obsession and addiction to a particular person.” Anyone who has suffered unrequited, obsessive, or otherwise failed love is intimately familiar with the physical and psychological torments that Brogaard enumerates – the heartache, emaciation, the fixation, obsession, and grief of loss. Hoping to provide the physiological explanation for our experience, Brogaard describes the chemical composition of such a state:
The time immediately following the shock and bewilderment of a breakup and the time of a mad, feverish love obsession are driven by an overflow of stress chemicals released by your brain in response to the trauma that is happening to you.
Significantly, as Brogaard maintains, this bodily condition resembles the chemistry of drug withdrawal.
This glimpse into the condition of the organ that we think is vital in generating love is intriguing, and the fMRI studies that inform Brogaard’s discussion paint a detailed picture of the neuronal network as it gives rise to love. What remains unclear, however, is whether this will ever be enough to answer more complicated questions about our mental states, in general, and love, in particular. In fact, the detailed account of the lover’s bodily processes that Brogaard provides shrouds the current scientific inability to uncover one of the most significant mysteries about love, namely, what love really is and why it occurs. Brogaard’s approach to love exemplifies the problem of the tendency in contemporary scholarship to account for psychological phenomena with fMRI-derived data, in attempting to translate the experience into its material components. For what becomes evident in reading her book is that not how much we know, but how much we do not know. The insight that neuroscience provides does not serve to explain the motions of the soul, but merely provides a way to label these experiences, using the terms neurotransmitters and hormones, instead of love and obsession. This means that while reducing love to chemistry – the immaterial to the material – offers insight into the bodily equivalent of the motions of the mind, it is an insufficient picture of why the neuronal network is triggered. What initiates the “hyper-activation” of the amygdala, sparking the cascade of neurons and hormones and beginning love’s trajectory? Is the initial cause external or is it a property of neuronal network itself – like a ripe fruit falling from a tree? The current body of knowledge on physiology is unable to explain the cause of love, and even Helen Fisher, whose work relies heavily on the brain structures involved in love and the chemicals that compose its processes, admits that “these fMRI studies can contribute nothing to the question of why we fall in love with one person rather than another.”
However, in the age old debate about whether the functions of the mind can be localized to specific regions of the brain or whether the mind is greater than the sum of its parts, Brogaard chooses not to choose sides. For although she does not fully acknowledge the limitations of the materialist approach to love, she recognizes that love is something beyond “a physical or chemical state.” For this reason, in other chapters, she resorts to exploring the psychology of lovers, which offers more insight. Often, pathological states give insight into healthy psychological states, and Broggard’s most enlightening data undeniably appears in her discussion of repeated, irrational love. The implication of these instances of love, wherein there is not “a good fit between [the beloved’s] qualities and the loving feeling,” illuminates the inception of all love.
To account for this phenomenon, Brogaard articulates the commonly-held belief that love begins with the familiar, which is “when a potential partner acts in a familiar way,” uncovering the relationship between falling in love and memory. She echoes the Freudian notion that the earliest experience of love – the love of caregivers – is significant in our choice of future partners, and offers both psychological studies and case reports that demonstrate our tendency to repeatedly recreate familiar relationships. In particular, the studies confirm that those who have been raised by unloving or “unpredictable” caregivers continually fall in love with unloving or “unpredictable” romantic partners, that is, “partners with the personalities of [the] parents”:
… our heart is ticking only when a potential partner acts in a familiar way, the way we were repetitiously taught that people in relationships are supposed to act. When we encounter someone who doesn’t act that way, someone who would have been a suitable choice for us, we don’t feel the adrenaline, and the vicious cycle never gets broken.
As Brogaard puts it, “unconscious processes govern who we are drawn to, almost with gravitational force.”
Brogaard offers an evolutionary explanation for this tendency, namely that “our reptilian brain can’t handle things that are different from what it already knows.” Yet this does not satisfactorily account for the lover’s psychological motivation in recreating a familiar relationship or falling for a familiar person. Indeed, people are not lovable merely because they are familiar. Throughout her book, Brogaard offers examples of characters from literature and film, in addition to people she has encountered, to illustrate the ideas she is presenting. And if I may be so permitted, I too would offer an example of a literary character who sheds some light on the role of familiarity in love. Consider the well-known and rather contradictory case of Pip of Dickens’ Great Expectations, who, against all logic, is unable to fall in love with Biddy, particularly because she is familiar. If Aristotle was right that literature is as life could and should be, then Pip’s counter-intuitive love for Estella and the inability to love Biddy should serve as an illustration of what happens to us all the time. The paradox that Pip’s case discloses is that, as Brogaard expresses without admitting the contradiction, for love “to obtain,” the object must inspire feelings of “unpredictability, mystery…, insecurity” – feelings that are incompatible with familiarity. Brogaard does not pursue the unraveling of this contradiction, very cautious to analyze only those facts that she can support with evidence, whether scientific, historical, or fictional. Much of her book suffers from this scientific cautiousness, enumerating physiological and psychological claims without drawing conclusions or exploring implications. Brogaard summarizes a great deal of studies and her opinions are periodically revealed throughout the chapters, yet the book reads like a list of disjointed statements, while an overall message is never reached. Her findings, however, in conjunction with various allusions to the work of seminal philosophers and psychologists, such as Nietzsche or Freud, set us on the right track.
To formulate a plausible explanation of what causes us to love someone, Brogaard’s discussion on the role of familiarity in love leads us to the work of Sigmund Freud, who, prior to the existence of fMRI studies, had offered insight into questions about which we continue to theorize today. In his view, recreations of familiar scenarios and familiar relationships are acts of the psyche compelled to repeat, much like that of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Freud’s illuminating principle is that we repeat traumatic events – whether through recollection or recreation – in order to confront the trauma, to retroactively master the original experience. So if Brogaard is right that love ignites when we encounter a familiar person who inspires anxiety, insecurity, unpredictability, we can theorize, in light of Freudian theory, that such a person (and the predecessor that informed the choice of this beloved) is still out of our reach, is yet un-mastered. Brogaard cites several case studies that demonstrate the Freudian notion that we long for the affection of the familiar but anxiety-inducing beloved to satisfy the desire for the affection of the original caregiver.
Such an explanation of our tendency to fall in love with the wrong people yields insight into the nature of all romantic love, providing the reason we fall in love with one person rather than another. For love arises, because we are able to perceive the beloved as both familiar and mysterious – a memento of unresolved issues. To illustrate our attraction to familiar people, Brogaard makes an analogy with the Aristophanes’ myth from Plato’s The Symposium, in which Aristophanes narrates the story of the origin of romantic love. He describes to his companions that human beings were once four-legged, four-armed, two-headed creatures, and as such, they were powerful, whole, happy. Yet one day, motivated by great ambition, human beings attacked the Gods, rousing the wrath of Zeus, who, to punish and discipline them, cut the human beings in two, subjecting them to perennial longing for their lost half. And this, as Aristophanes explains, is the origin of love, the cause of which is the desire to be reunited with our complementary half, a desire to be whole once again. Brogaard admits that the myth is “not intended to capture attachment patterns,” but she claims that it is “an apt depiction of our pathetic search for partners with the personalities of our parents.” Yet beyond that, if love is the search for the whole, as the story illustrates, then through love, we can achieve wholeness not merely by merging with the familiar beloved, but by rebuilding the ego – wounded and fragmented by early experiences. Formulated thus, love serves as a tool for the psyche to overcome its own inner demons, for mastering the memories of relationships past.
Unlike the allusion to Aristophanes’ myth, the scientific parts of the Brogaard’s book, while comprehensive, can be somewhat dry and inconclusive, but they serve to set the stage for a major goal of the book – to demonstrate that if we choose to do so, we can “take measures to fall out of love.” Indeed, reducing love to a material process enables Brogaard to explore remedies and to contend with its obsessive, painful, or otherwise unhealthy iterations as one would with a headache or high blood pressure. And much like ancient physicians treating lovesickness, Brogaard proceeds to list methods for combatting persistent cases of undesirable love. The treatments she offers are no different from those we intuitively suggest to our lovesick friends – deep breathing, meditation, “altering your environment,” talk therapy, and criticism of the beloved. Yet what distinguishes Brogaard’s work from a self-help book is her scientific account of how such cures affect the lovesick body and the psychological studies that corroborate their effectiveness. The remedies function by “counteract[ing …] the effects” of stress chemicals, ceasing the bodily preparation for the beloved, lessening the effect of the beloved on the dopaminergic system, and dissociating positive feelings from this drug.
But even if these treatments were as effective at helping us cope with our addiction as Brogaard would like us to believe, regardless of the pain accompanying the experience of lovesickness, do we really wish to be cured of love or of its symptoms? Brogaard anticipates such reluctance, observing that those of us suffering from “obsessive love,” even if we have fallen into the same familiar trap, still “resist separation” and “refuse to relinquish” the beloved. To elucidate our unwillingness to be cured, Brogaard offers a physiological explanation:
The occasional increase in the brain’s levels of dopamine and norepinephrine infuses the tormented and obsessed individual with sufficient energy and motivation to refuse to relinquish… the neurotransmitters are on a roller coaster ride that makes the obsessed person hang onto the past with ferocious energy even when it is blatantly obvious to everyone else that there is nothing to hang onto.
In other words, the longing just feels good, even as it feels badly. However, like the physiological account of love, this explanation is not satisfactory, because the statement that something is desired is no different from the fact that dopamine is released in response. A more satisfying explanation would aim to account for the cause of the release of dopamine or for the continued attachment to the beloved. Brogaard may be right that love is addictive, because its chemistry resembles the brain on drugs. Yet considering the formulation of the cause of love to which her book alludes, if we are seeking to revive the past, then we “refuse to relinquish” the beloved, because this person serves as more than a mere medium toward reproduction – if this were so, he/she could be displaced easily. Rather, the beloved is the mediator in the quest to redeem our ego, rewrite our history, and reach self-actualization, our need for which is no less powerful.
Jane Shmidt is a Ph.D. candidate of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches English and Russian literature at Hunter College and City College. She is working on a dissertation that examines the subject of lovesickness in medicine and literature.