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When You Love Someone, What Do You Love?

Love is not directed at just a body, soul, or mind, but at an embodied person.

When Romeo and Juliet fell in love with each other, what did each of them fall in love with? Philosophers have proposed various answers to the question of the object of love, including claims that people love a soul, a mind, a personality, a body, or an embodied person (Foster, forthcoming). Their arguments are mostly based on thought experiments, for example, by considering what happens if a loved person is split into two copies. A more reliable way of determining the object of love is to extrapolate from what psychology and neuroscience reveal about the nature of love and personhood.

In an earlier post, I proposed that love is a pattern of neural firing, in line with the general theory that emotions are neural processes that combine representations of a situation, appraisal of the goal significance of the situation, and perception of bodily changes. When Juliet loves Romeo, she has a mental representation of what he looks like, how he sounds, how he feels, how he treats her, and aspects of his personality, such as intelligence. She also has an evaluation, conscious or unconscious, of the extent to which he satisfies her relationship goals, such as being cared for. More viscerally, Juliet undergoes physiological changes, such as the rapid heartbeat and butterflies in the stomach that accompany infatuation. Current theories in theoretical neuroscience based on semantic pointers show how all these can be combined into a unified neural representation (Thagard 2019).

Wikimedia Commons.
Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Identifying Juliet's love as a neural process does not mean that she is in love with just an idea, mental representation, or brain process, although these are all important parts of her thoughts about Romeo. Rather, she is in love with the person Romeo—but what is a person? This question is also one for which psychology and neuroscience propose novel answers. In another blog post, I outlined an account of the self as a system of social, psychological, neural, and molecular mechanisms. Juliet lived hundreds of years before any of these mechanisms were discovered, but she would have been capable of observing many of their manifestations. Her observations and beliefs about Romeo included information about his behaviors, physical appearance, personality, and social relationships, all of which result from underlying mechanisms. Taken together, these add up to the psychological and neural side of what Gary Foster calls an embodied person.

Love is embodied in two ways. First, like other emotions, it is partly based on physiological changes that take place in the body of the person in love. Second, love is embodied in that part of what attracts us to other people; it is what their bodies look like, which has both sexual and aesthetic components.

But love also goes beyond the body in two ways: first because like other emotions, it has an appraisal dimension where people can make judgments about the extent to which the other person contributes to their goals. Second, when people think about romantic partners, it is not just their physical appearance that matters, but also many more abstract aspects, such as personality (e.g., conscientiousness and openness to experience), accomplishments, and history of relationships.

Juliet, like most people today, was not aware of the complex interplay of factors that make people who they are, including genetics, epigenetics, early childhood learning, later social learning, and choices. But even without the full picture, most people can think of the object of their love as a combination of a body and a mind. Modern cognitive science explains how this combination works through the interactions of molecular, neural, psychological, and social mechanisms.

Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock


Foster, G. (forthcoming). What matters in love: Reflections on the relationship between love and persons. Dialogue.

Thagard, P. (2019). Brain-mind: From neurons to consciousness and creativity. New York: Oxford University Press.

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