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What Is Love? (No, Really. What Is It?)

Is love an emotion, a drive, or something else? It's a centuries-old debate.

Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock
Source: Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock

There is little dispute among most people that love is an emotion. Social psychologist Phillip Shaver and colleagues asked students how confident they were that items on a list of more than 100 emotion-related words referred to actual emotions, and “love” was the one that students were most confident signified a true emotion.

To many of us, the idea that love is an emotion is so obvious as to be banal. This view, however, has surprisingly limited popularity among philosophers and scientists, who also find baffling most people's fondness for the view that love involves more than one person. Aristotle thought of love as a union, saying, "Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” (Diogenes Laërtius, Third Century AD).

Modern British philosopher Roger Scruton, who defends Aristotle’s view, likewise holds that love exists “just so soon as reciprocity becomes community. That is, just so soon as all distinction between my interests and your interests is overcome.” In a variation of this view, love is not itself an emotion but an emotion complex consisting of the emotions of two or more people. As Annette Baier puts it:

Love is not just an emotion people feel toward other people, but also a complex tying together of the emotions that two or a few more people have; it is a special form of emotional interdependence. (Unsafe Loves, p. 444)

This view is also encapsulated in sayings like, “Lovers’ hearts always beat as one"; “Love creates an us without destroying a me"; and, “Love is when two bodies become one sou." Or as Sean Penn once said, “I like to believe that love is a reciprocal thing, that it can't really be felt, truly, by one.”

But this "union view" is fraught with difficulties.

It implies that love cannot be unreciprocated and that one cannot love a deceased lover or a hallucinated one. But it is hard to deny, to take just one example from real life or pop culture, that, in the movie The Sixth Sense, the grief-stricken widow of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) still loves him, despite his death.

Avid defenders of the union view could argue that love is either a union among lovers or the anticipation of, or desire for, such a union. None of that helps.

You can love someone without anticipating or desiring that a union will come into existence, because—sadly—love isn’t always sufficient for initiating or continuing a relationship. “To blindly follow the heart is the maxim of fools," philosopher Aaron Smuts observes.

Some people say that love is a concern for another person for their sake rather than your own, an appraisal of the value of another person, or a bestowal of value on the beloved. But none of these accounts of love can be accurate.

You can have a deep concern for another person without loving them, and you can love someone without having a deep concern for them. A nurse is expected to have a deep concern for his patients but he is not expected to love them. An incestuous, abusive mother may love her child but have no concern for him. Love may involve an appreciation of another person’s value, or the bestowal of value on another person, but neither is sufficient for love. We can appreciate Jeremy Glick, who attempted to take down the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, without the appreciation adding up to love. We bestow value on people we admire but we need not love them.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher holds that romantic love is never an emotion or feeling. It’s a drive, just like sex and attachment. Fisher’s argument is that romantic love is associated with increased activation of neurons in the midbrain that secrete dopamine, and since the dopamine system is a more primitive system than the emotional brain and the cortical system, romantic love is not an emotion.

This argument, however, is not sound. Dopamine is one of the key neurotransmitters in the modulation of anger. It can motivate enraged people to shout, throw things, seek revenge, and even kill. Does that make anger a drive? Hardly. Anger is an emotion, even if it is associated with a strong dopamine response, the very chemical that can make people addicted to anger.

The same point can be made with respect to fear: Some people get severely addicted to adrenaline rushes caused by abnormally intense fear processing in the emotional brain. They cannot get enough of extreme rollercoasters, paragliding, parachuting, racecars, or rock climbing without a safety line. They get addicted to visceral thrills because the adrenaline rushes cause a steep peak in dopamine levels. This heavy dose of the reward chemical is gratifying. Over time, the system changes, and a more intense adrenaline rush is needed to get the same pleasurable response.

It is in part the peak in dopamine levels that prepares our fight-and-flight response in threatening situations. Dopamine motivates us to act now by either fighting off the danger, or running away from it. But despite the close correlation between fear and peaks in dopamine levels, fear is an emotion. It’s even considered one of the six basic emotions—the others being surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, and joy.

The conclusion to draw from this is that whether or not a feeling is associated with a peak in dopamine levels has no bearing on whether it really is an emotion.

 Berit Brogaard
Source: Copyright: Berit Brogaard

Fisher further argues that love is too long-lasting to be an emotion. But this line of argument doesn’t succeed, either. She mentions disgust as a representative example of an emotion, and it’s true that disgust, as consciously felt, usually doesn’t last long. But despite normally being treated as such, disgust may not be an emotion at all, but a sensory reflex. What’s more, disgust can be long-lasting, just like anger and sadness. I don’t like fried liver. It has a mushy texture and a bitter iron taste. It’s repulsive. Nauseating. Vile. But my disgust doesn’t vanish when I am not exposed to, or not thinking about, fried liver. I still find it revolting and have for too many years to count.

Love is not a drive; it is first and foremost something we feel in our hearts.

It is when love manifests itself as an emotional experience that it is characterized by the sort of profound ecstasy or deep attachment that, when suddenly interrupted or unreciprocated, can cause intense suffering. Love is something for which we will give up eternal life. The main character in the movie City of Angels, who gives up his wings in return for bodily sensation, and then loses his one and only beloved in a truck accident, says: “I would rather have tasted her lips just once, touched her skin, one time, and made love to her for one night, than spend the rest of my life without ever knowing that.”

I am the author of On Romantic Love.