Style Sex & Relationships

Saturday 23 August 2014

The eternal question: just what is love?

Published 30/06/2013 | 05:00

  • Share
Kathleen MacMahon
Dr Paul J Zak

The answer has eluded the world's greatest thinkers since the dawn of time. What is certain, though, is that creative minds and scientific minds have very different theories. We asked science writer (and neuroscientist) Dr Paul J Zak and fiction writer Kathleen MacMahon for their answers to some age-old questions

  • Share
  • Go To

Dr Paul J Zak

Is love at first sight possible?

Yes. A set of brain chemicals, especially dopamine and oxytocin, make us focus on people who appear to us to be beautiful. The 'rush' of instant love uses the same pathways in the brain as the rush from drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Love at first sight can make us feel drugged. Interestingly, some of these effects occur when we smell a person we are attracted to.

Is the pursuit of love biological or cultural?

All cultural pursuits have biological roots, so it's all in the brain. Humans literally need to be loved. Children and adults who are not loved die; before that, they are seriously stressed and depressed.

Is love an addiction?

Yes, just like eating is an addiction. We need at least some love to survive and we need a lot to thrive. Some people do get addicted to falling in love, too.

Is love blind?

The evidence suggests love is not blind. Most of us are attracted to partners who are similar, but not too similar, to ourselves. The 'too similar' aversion inhibits inbreeding.

How do you know you're in love?

There are many kinds of love, but early love is like the rush of a drug and the obsession to be with that person. Your heart beats faster and your palms sweat. That's either love or some nasty virus.

More mature love is the comfort of being with someone and shared interests and a sense of contentment.

Can you love someone you've never met?

Yes, for example, people we see on TV or in movies. It seems we know them because we've spent time with them. Our brains can have the love response to actors as to people in real life.

Can love last?

Humans have monogamous brains and promiscuous genitals. Our brains motivate us to stay with partners long term – through the release of oxytocin – but our genitals are designed for promiscuous sex. Long-term is possible, but it takes work – and some luck that your partner doesn't cheat on you.

Do you believe in soulmates and twin flames?

The science shows that it is easy to fall in love and stay in love with someone. I think we delude ourselves into thinking someone is our soulmate. I met my wife on an airplane. Had I been seated a row back we would have never met. We've been married now for 18 years, with two kids.

Is love lunacy?

Early love is very much like lunacy from the brain's perspective. It involves obsessive thinking, often poor judgement, euphoria and paranoia.

Can you die from a broken heart?

The evidence increasingly suggests this occurs. The reasons are not well understood but it seems to be a stress response that impairs heart function.

Can you make someone fall in love with you?

That's the ultimate question. I think you can increase the likelihood that someone will fall in love with you – by being attentive to them, emotionally connecting to them, etc – but even with the help of an oxytocin inhaler, you can't make someone love you who really doesn't want to.

Is there a difference between love and lust?

Lust is associated with the euphoria and obsession of early love – whether or not sexual relations occur – while love is associated with a deeper commitment and perhaps less passion but a longer-burning fire.

Does marriage jeopardise love?

In an experiment where I took blood samples before and after a wedding, I found a major increase in oxytocin in the bride and groom and much less among guests. This suggests the publicness of weddings can strengthen love. But, as I said above, even married people are tempted by the desire for a fling.

Can you be in love with two people at the same time?

Yes. The brain conserves the pathways for love of all types. For example, one can equally love two of one's children. By analogy, one can love two romantic partners.

Can you fall in and out of love?

Yes. High stress and high testosterone inhibits the oxytocin release that cements long-term relationships.

Are the eyes the windows to the soul?

Many studies show that just by looking at someone's eyes, we can predict with 80pc or better accuracy what they are feeling – even love. Yes, the eyes are the window to our deepest emotions.

What are butterflies?

When we have obsessive love for someone, our brain produces the same chemicals that are released when we ride a roller coaster or walk across a very high bridge. That jittery feeling is due to an increase in heart rate, respiration rate and a focus of attention on the other person. It's your brain telling you they are very, very important.

Paul is the author of 'The Moral Molecule: The

Source of Love & Prosperity'

Kathleen MacMahon

Is love at first sight possible?

Yes. You can fall in love with someone you saw for only a split second, from a moving car. You can fall in love with the back of someone's head in a crowd or at the other end of a phone line. The important thing is to be prepared to revise your opinion on a second sighting.

Is the pursuit of love biological or cultural?

The desire for love comes from deep within us. But the prevailing culture creates all kinds of cross winds that can distort and confuse it, resulting in all manner of mayhem.

Is love an addiction?

Love is more of a healthy habit, something that ideally you're reared with and come to expect. You can be reared with the habit of not loving, too, and that's a hard one to give up.

Is love blind?

No. Poor love, it gets the blame for so many of its undesirable neighbours. Denial is what causes blindness, or obsession. Love has perfectly good sight, but it is unadulterated by what it sees. It's like a hot-air balloon, floating above the landscape on a clear day. You know your baby has funny ears, but you love him anyway.

How do you know you're in love?

Sometimes you don't. But if you keep asking yourself if you are in love, then you're also asking yourself if you're not. Other people can tell just by looking at you.

Can you love someone you've never met?

If you love someone you've never met, it's more about you than it is about them. It's a flight of fancy, a projection; wishful thinking.

Can love last?

Yes. Love is like a tin box that's left behind in the ashes after a fire. Love can, and does, outlast even death. With the passage of time, love is all that's left.

Do you believe in soulmates and twin flames?

Yes. I think of us all as circles that overlap with each other to a greater or lesser extent. Soulmates occur when those circles fit perfectly on top of each other, so that the area of affinity leaves nothing outside of it. That's what Emily Bronte meant when she wrote, "I am Heathcliff and he is me".

Is love lunacy?

No. Lunacy is lunacy. Love is beautifully sane. Not to love, that's lunacy.

Can you die from a broken heart?

Yes. It's a lovely but inaccurate description of a slower and sadder reality. The heart withers before it dies.

Can you make someone fall in love with you?

You can easily make a woman fall in love with you. Most women are so flattered to be loved, and so glad to be listened to, that they can be persuaded to return the compliment. If you have to persuade a man to fall in love with you, you're in trouble already.

Is there a difference between love and lust?

Lust has very little to do with love. You can lust after someone you don't even like. Sometimes it's more fun to lust after someone you don't like. The notion of taking leave of your senses is so tempting.

Does marriage jeopardise love?

Domesticity jeopardises love. The arrival of children jeopardises love. Exhaustion and irritation jeopardise love. Boredom jeopardises love. When you think about it, it's a miracle that love manages to survive within a marriage; it's the ultimate tightrope act. There are so many things conspiring to take it down.

Can you be in love with two people at the same time?

Yes, if you have the energy.

Can you fall in and out of love?

Absolutely. You can crash out of love in a moment, sometimes for the most trivial of reasons. You can be driven out of love by cruelty or unkindness. You can fall out of love slowly, for no reason at all. That's the saddest way.

Are the eyes the windows to the soul?

No. The eyes are an indicator of mood, like the sky. The face is where you find all the answers. In the shape of the nose, in the depth of the forehead, in the set of a person's lips – that's where you find the map of the soul. All you have to do is look.

What are butterflies?

Butterflies are the body's way of telling the head that you have encountered somebody you could love. Our heads are sometimes so slow and so stubborn that the body needs to do some prompting. Otherwise, nothing would ever happen.

Kathleen is the author of 'This is How It Ends'

Irish Independent

Read More

Editors Choice



Also in Style