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Neurobiology of Pair Bonding

Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar

Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010

The Neurobiology of Pair Bonding

This week we wanted to discuss the neural underpinnings oflove. How would love be defined in terms of physical, emotional or mental states? Can neurotransmitters and chemical signals in the brain really account for and explain how this phenomena of love arises? What kinds of brain activity signal romantic love and attraction?  We will explore these questions along with other issues such as artificially altering attraction,  how controllable falling in love is, and the relation between human behavior/experience and those of other animals.  Based on the assorted background readings, we will also talk more about how research is reported among scientists and its handling for wider audiences.

Background readings:

  1. The biology of dating: why him, why her?, Time
  2. The science of romance: why we love, Time
  3. The male brain: more complex than you think, Time
  4. The neurobiology of pair bonding, Nature Neuroscience 7: 1048-1-54 (2004)
  5. Can animals be gay?, NYTimes magazine

Some continuing conversation from  last week:

Learning is a process and I would prefer to first take in “the basics” in order to ultimately achieve (what I believe to be) a more complete understanding ... EB Ver Hoeve

re phonemes are consciously studied and learned. This conscious learning process distinguishes speech production from musical ability because the amount of interpretation (or amount of neurons involved in interpreting process) that is required to understand speech is greater than that required to produce music. This makes sense to me. I often notice that I'll sing along to songs on the radio without actually paying attention to the words ... meroberts

if you take a fragment of speech and repeat it multiple times, it can start sounding like a song ( ... kenglander

It would be interesting to study whether reciting group prayers might help a person with aphasia that is religious.  If it does, it might suggest that it is the emotional charge and familiarity of group singing that helps aphasics rather than music’s tonality or rhythm ... lmccormick

Does it even matter if music therapy is just helping because it is social, because it does helps aphasiacs speak and can reduce Parkinson's tremors? Is it important for us to know a mechanism other than that "music is social" to increase the legitimacy of music therapy? (at least in terms of funding for it, I think yes) ... sberman

it is interesting to me that the brain is apparently capable of a fair amount of adaptation and adjustment in response to injury but that damaged neurons are generally not capable of a significant amount of regeneration ... Jeremy Posner

"what" decides to perform this relocation of circuitry? This appears as an odd question at first, as it seems to imply the existence of some external, non-material entity or consciousness that can dictate physical processes. However, it need not imply this sort of conclusion, and rather indicates to me a much more complicated and real question. Since I assume we all believe in necessary causality, we can reasonably conclude that there must be some "upstream" input that encodes the desire to speak and causes activation in Broca's area, which ultimately results in speech. When someone relocates their speech circuitry to, say, their musical circuitry, it seems equally reasonable to conclude that the upstream input that represents the desire to speak now causes enhanced activation in the musical circuitry ... David F

just because Broca’s area is commonly known to be THE language production center, this not does necessarily mean that it is the only path the brain can use to produce language ... Bo-Rin Kim

“If people who we consider blind actually have "blind sight" - the term refers to a native ability to sense things using the brain's subcortical and primitive visual system- who knows what other capabilities we have missed in people with losses of function.” -VGopinath

The idea of primitive brain structures is an interesting addition to most of the topics discussed in class and I’m glad that Vidya mentioned it. I was actually thinking of the role that these primitive brain structures play in our discussion about the experience of stroke a few weeks ago. The evolution of the human brain has allowed for very complex brain functions. But it also enables secondary pathways to take over should there be damage to a more localized structure. I agree with Paul that the oversimplified ‘localizationist’ viewpoint often ascribes specific functions to structures and misses the big picture of the entire neural network and its ability to reorganize: “"function" isn't so much "recovered" as reconstructed from surviving functions” (Paul) ... meroberts

Parkinson's patients can dance.  Some individuals whose condition is so severe can't ... in some patients, music can "freeze the effects of Parkinson's" and stop tremors for minutes after dancing ... I found this an impetus for us to be creative in looking at which capabilities are impaired and which aren't in other disorders to find unconventional therapies.  A very remarkable study ( ... demonstrated that a man who is blind due to two successive strokes was actually able to navigate a cluttered hallway.  If people who we consider blind actually have "blind sight" - the term refers to a native ability to sense things using the brain's subcortical and primitive visual system- who knows what other capabilities we have missed in people with losses of function ... VGopinath

We so rarely discuss conditions like aphasia in terms of functions gained, rather than just functions lost ... Perhaps deteriorating language ability is one of the ways in which thought might shift enough to create something that other people will find interesting ... Claire

Conversation summary (Paul)

Discussion ranged widely across the background readings.  Among the issues considered was the relevance of animal studies for thinking about human behavior, the justifiability or lack thereof of some generalizations offered as "scientific" (can one classify people in relation to neurotransmitters?), and the relation between pair bonding and sexuality (in some cultures, sex occurs only after pair bonding). 

Among the general themes that emerged in the conversation was the difficulty of defining "love."  Is it a single thing or a combination of different things, each of which is also involved in something else but with love distinctive in the combination of things (a version of the "distributed organization" that may be characteristic of language?  Is love something one could tell someone they have from a brain scan even if they don't themselves experience it (or not have even if they say they do?).  Or is it instead another instance of the fully subjective, not identifiable as a shared subjectivity?  Should there be a test for "love" as for a disease, or does the subject require neurobiology to accept irreducible subjectivity (as life sometimes seems to require)? 

There was brief discussion of whether taking an evolutionary approach might help in this regard.  Is love, or at least a preoccupation with it, primarily cultural or does one see it in all human populations?  Could there be a gene for love, as suggested by some of the vole work?  Or is one here, as in many other cases, dealing with multiple gene influences (paralleling in the genetic realm a more distributed, less localizationist, perspective on brain function)? 

Might science in realms like this need to stop thinking in terms of "things," and looking for "things" to account for them?  What would a more "diffuse neurobiology" look like?  How would one do it?

Toward the end, the discussion turned to the assigned articles as examples of the communication of scientific observations/perspectives.  Thirteen of fifteen people present named article 5 as "most interesting" (article 1 got the other two votes).  Eight of fifteen also named article 5 as "learned most from" (article 2 got six votes and article 1 one).  With regard to "best science," eleven people named article 4 ("graphs," "charts," "scans") as "best science; article 5 got the remaining 4 votes ("clear and careful attention to observations, critical interpretation of observations, setting of observations/interpretations in broader context").  Interesting connections of these observations to ongoing discussions of the nature of science and of science education were briefly noted.

Continuing conversation in on-line forum below


Claire Ceriani's picture

I thought this was an

I thought this was an interesting topic to choose, and one I would not have thought of for a class like this.  I was especially interested in our discussion about defining love.  I agree with Megan.  We do need to have some sort of definition of love in order to study it scientifically.  The only way we can make comparisons across studies is if we have a common understanding of exactly what it is we're studying.  But I think from neurological perspective, all we can ever really define is which parts of the brain seem to be involved in the experience of love.  I don't think we'll ever be able to come up with a single description of what love is, since it clearly varies from culture and culture and person to person.  We also discussed how love in a relationship may change over time.  This means that we'll be defining love based on the brain areas we observe as active, but we'll decide if a person is in love if the appropriate brain areas are active.  There's no objective starting point.  For this kind of research, you have to allow for some subjectivity.  You have to take the word of your subjects when they define their own emotional experiences.  If someone says they're in love, but their MRI doesn't look "right," do you decide not to believe them and remove them from the study?  Or do you take their word for it and try to explain the differences you see?  At some point, you have to make a completely subjective choice.

Sasha's picture

In our discussion of the

In our discussion of the Science of Bonding/Romantic Love/ etc... I feel as though several aspects of the presence and development of love were left out. First, I think it's important to note that love, pair bonding, emotional bond/connection, whatever you want to call it, changes over time. Relationships change, people change, how much you trust someone changes over time- and these all lead to a mutation in that "love/bond". This bond can be made weaker or stronger or stay the same "strength" just have a different shape (the image in my head right now is of a carbon-carbon bond and you can go from a one bond to a double bond or triple bond and with love there could be straight bonds and squiggly bonds...  ) but and they would all still qualify as "love". I'm sorry to bring in my relationship but, for example,-the love i experienced when i first started dating my boyfriend 6 years ago was very different from the love I experienced after we had been together for 2 or 3 years and the love I feel now is different from the love i felt 2 or 3 years ago. I wouldn't say I love him any more or any less than I did in previous years, it's just different. Because we are constantly changing and our brains are constantly changing the way we process and interpret our emotions and experiences with love is most likely going to be constantly changing, and so the idea of mapping certain pathways and areas of the brain that show that someone is in love seems very challenging. I guess my point is that I don't fully agree with Megan in that I don't think "brain imaging techniques could be used to support findings that love is actually just the product of chemicals creating a classically conditioned response to a person." I think the manifestation of love is more complicated than a classically conditioned response to a person. There is too much variability in how humans experience love/bond that to claim that maybe 3 specific regions of the brain are involved and activated for people in love almost seems to oversimplify a very complicated and confusing emotion and experience. Nevertheless, pair bonding/love is certainly something worth investigating at a neurological level. 

meroberts's picture

Science of love

"Do we have to be able to clearly define "love" (etc) in advance and aspire to an "objective" way to locate it in the brain in order to do scientific research?" -Paul

Yes, I think we do need to have a clear definition of "love" and a plan to determine its neurological correlates in order to "study" the concept of love. That's how scientists go about studying anything. First, there has to be a plan; an experiment based on an observation. Otherwise, no new observations would be made because nothing would be manipulated. I think the articles did a good job of both making a clear argument of the science involved and explaining it in terms that are easily understandable to the masses. There is clearly a plan involved in each of the studies we read, even though the definitions of "love" may differ pertaining to each study. Perhaps we should just think about love in terms of the neurotransmitters found to be responsible for feelings associated with "love". Dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin- clearly, "love" should make a person feel euphoric, and maybe even "connected" to, or "bonded" with, someone. Maybe "love" can be reduced to intense emotional bonds between people. Brain imaging techniques could be used to support findings that love is actually just the product of chemicals creating a classically conditioned response to a person.

As Allie says, "the real question is if there is anything in common in the brain activity of people who are in love." There needs to be an established pattern of activity that can be used as a reference point. Otherwise, what is the point of having all of our brain imaging techniques? In the Science of Romance article, the brain activity patterns that were found in most people in love involved three areas: the ventral tegmental, nucleus accumbens, and the caudate nuclei. The processing that occurs in these areas has something to do with the emotions/bonds involved in what we refer to as "love". The fact that these regions are activated similarly across a sample of individuals provides a platform for studying these areas and their involvement in "love".

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

The unique bond.


If love is in any way manifested in the neuronal circuitry of the brain, it could ONLY be understood in terms of a highly distributed system. As many have already mentioned, there is simply no one-way to “fall in love”. Love is a system that lacks a cause and effect relationship because it can be created from so many different paths, levels, and actions. I am intrigued by this love at first sight vs. love that develops from arranged marriages discussion because it does seem to indicate that romantic love can develop without sexual desire. Furthermore, it seems likely that these feelings of closeness/ close love are responsible for triggering sexual desire. But even if we could agree that there are many ways to fall in love, I think it would still be a mistake to begin searching for the location of love in the brain. As discussed a long time ago in class, even if we had the best brain scanning machines available, we would still most likely reach a point where we couldn’t explain everything that is going on in the brain and how it relates to behavior. We would get to a point where we could not reduce the actions of the brain any further. As discussed in class, this point may represent the part of every individual that is uniquely subjective and indefinable. I feel that if we try and search for love, we may end up in a similar situation. After all, people who are in love have difficulty explaining how they feel/ why they feel the way they do. Perhaps a person, in love, has connected to that “irreducible uniqueness” in their partner. They can’t tell you what it is exactly, but they know that they feel a deeply intimate bond with their partner, a bond that no one else can understand. If love is unique to an individual, then it kind of makes sense that when one experiences love, they experience a connection with something that cannot be localized and can never be fully defined.


kenglander's picture

During class last week, Vidya

During class last week, Vidya brought up the idea of love across cultures. Specifically, she mentioned that some cultures and religions do not allow sex before marriage and may have even stricter taboos on certain behaviors prior to marriage. In such cases, perhaps love is redefined to exclude sexual arousal. This made me think of two potentially conflicting phenomena/practices: love at first sight and arranged marriages.

I'm defining love at first sight as a person's self-reported experience that he/she "fell in love" with another person upon seeing that person for the first time (without having had any interactions with him/her). Love at first sight is perhaps too "floofy" of a concept to discuss in terms of its relation to science, but to some extent I think that love at first sight (if it does exist) is based-- at least to some extent-- on sexual arousal. To what extent do these feelings relate to love? Are people who believe they experienced love at first sight just experiencing the cascade of behaviors and emotions we described in class (i.e. arousal, emotional attachment, empathy) faster than other people (who don't believe in love at first sight)?

Conversely, there is a question of arranged marriages and love. In such scenarios, a family enters into a contract with another family to wed their offspring. Whether this union is arranged for socio-political reasons, religious beliefs, or cultural practices, the element of choice is not necessarily involved in the contract; in some cases the bride and groom may have never seen one another prior to their wedding day. Despite the lack of familiarity with one another, however, some couples may consider themselves to be in love at their wedding or shortly thereafter (this information is anecdotal-- 2 couples in my extended family were/are in arranged marriages). Are arranged marriages actually more similar to love at first sight than initially thought? To what extent do choice, familiarity, and culture affect how we view love? (And what implications does that have for how we choose to study it?)

Bo-Rin Kim's picture

Remaining thoughts on love and the brain

I took away several questions from this discussion that I did not come in with. One question regards the role of culture in love. Several of the Time articles discussed how people detect MHC in potential partners and unconsciously use this as a measure of how compatible they are with that person. Thus, researchers urge women to get off of the pill and people to stay away from meds that can mask their ability to detect the compatibility of their partner’s MHC. Similar to effect drugs can have on our ability to detect MHC, I wonder if the images and expectations of love that culture engrains in our minds throws off our ability to find the partner we are most compatible with. Media and social norms push us to pursue a certain kind of mate by defining what is attractive and what is appropriate dating behavior. Maybe all these expectations and pre-defined images of who we should pursue throws off our ability to find our real match that we would be most compatible with.

Also, I think culture plays a huge role in blowing love out of proportion. All the songs, movies, shows, books and general talk about love increases the desire to be in love and such strong desire can bring about the intense emotions associated with love. There are other emotional/mental states that stimulate the reward system and bring about a state of euphoria (such as being successful in something or even something simple as being full). However, as mentioned in class, society places a much larger emphasis on love. So it do our brains really have a special love circuit or is our obsession with love a product of culture?

Moreover, maybe it is this over-emphasis on love that pushes scientists to explain this phenomenon that drives so many to do crazy, unexplainable things in its name. Perhaps there is this pressure for researchers to break down love into smaller, biological components to prove that love is something that is really powerful and can drive you over the edge—to support the image of love that society has developed. However, as we discovered in our class survey, these scientific papers may not necessarily be very useful or educational. Research may just be done to provide some “hard science” evidence behind love while not providing anything substantial to be learned. I think this is particularly true when science tries to localize everything to certain brain regions (as mentioned by Paul).

I like the idea that our brain has the power to create something that we cannot fully explain. Similar to how a series of simple numbers can give rise to many complex combinations that cannot be attributed to one number, different brain regions/processes can give rise to mental/behavioral phenomena that cannot be tied to specific brain regions. This is why I like Vidya’s idea of thinking of love as a pattern. Not necessarily a pattern in that there is a shared similarity among all people, but that there is a collection of neural events that gives rise to and uniquely defines love for a particular person. Much like how we discussed how every person may have a unique manifestation of a mental illness, maybe love is unique to the individual.

mrobbins's picture

What's Love Got to Do With It?


I don’t think that there is an easy solution to defining love. I absolutely agree that it is a completely subjective experience dependent on the individual and situation. There are many different types of love. You love your family and friends differently from your significant other. Since these two types of love are so incredibly different from one another should they both even be classified as love? The drives, expectations, and feelings associated from different types of love are infinitely variable as are the factors influencing love in general.

A recent study found that the number of mate choices an individual is faced with directly affects what details that that individual uses in order to pick a potential mate. The study found that when individuals attended small speed dating events, the daters paid much greater attention to factors that could be thoroughly evaluated such as the person’s education level, type of job, and whether or not the person ever smokes, etc. At larger speed dating events, participants judged based on qualities that could be judged quickly such as height and weight. Basically, this study shows that these are the same brains in both scenarios. It is the power of environmental constraints to affect our romantic fate. The human brain, although quite powerful, is not able to evaluate everything at once, and when faced with many choices, the brain decides based on what it can evaluate most closely.

            Therefore, if the environment so greatly affects who we decide to fall in love with in general, wouldn’t this affect how we love just as strongly? If we are faced with a small dating pool we pick our interests based on different qualities then if we had a larger pool of options. Finding love with someone tall, dark and handsome may be a very different pattern of falling in love with someone who has gone to Harvard Divinity School. I guess the main point I am trying to get at is if there are infinite ways in which to fall in love, and love someone, why even bother trying to confine something bigger than any one definition? Maybe love is more like a personality. Personality isn’t localized to one area of the brain. It interacts between biology and the environment, among other things. We all have personalities, but we don’t have the same one. Perhaps it’s the same thing with love. Love is a not a singular entity, but is rater a function of many.


vpina's picture

  I completely agree with


I completely agree with this statement made by Melissa. I would also like to include my following views that love is a human social construct that cannot be applied to animals.  From a psychology view point even if it were possibly that animals can love it would be impossible for us to know that is what they are feeling because love is something that is shared verbally not something that has a specific formula like we found out in class Monday.   



LMcCormick's picture

Can animals love?

The question was posed in class whether animals experience love, but it was quickly dismissed.  Clearly this is not something that we can determine with any certainty (unless we manage to find an fMRI “brain pattern” for love).  However, I think that there is a chance that animals do experience love in a similar manner as we do.  Vidya described love as a cultural phenomenon; however, we find that people from all cultures experience love.  Perhaps we only describe it as a cultural phenomenon because we cannot yet describe it as a biological phenomenon.  But the fact is that for a monogamous species that requires help from the father in caring for the young, love is advantageous and helps to perpetrate the species.  As described in the article, the initial passionate love brings a pair together, and the enduring, companionship love creates a strong bong between the two without getting in the way of caring for children.  This description does not seem exclusive to humans.  Evolutionary speaking, why wouldn’t animals experience love?  Examples of pair-bonding in voles and albatrosses that reunite year after year demonstrate a desire to be together, attachment, addictive behavior, and sexual arousal.  It is harder to determine if they experience other attributes of love that we described such caring for the other’s well-being.

            I’m not saying that I necessarily believe that animals experience love.  If they do, it is clearly manifested differently and limited by the fact that they cannot communicate with each other to the same extent as humans can (as far as we can tell).  I am only asserting that we may have disregarded the possibility that animals can love too quickly.



aliss's picture

The "Science" of Love

I really enjoyed hearing everyone's thoughts regarding the nature of love and how we should define it.  I agree with Vidya in that we are thinking of love as a disease, something that we can define by certain "symptoms."  Although we read an article about animals being gay, it seems as though we agreed that love is a human emotion, or at least that we can't say that two animals are "in love."  Instead, as scientists, we say that they are pair bonded.  This reflects the same type of thinking that leads us to try to qualify the symptoms of love.  I agree with he rest of the class in that I would not feel comfortable telling someone that they were not in love when they believed that they were.  However, I also don't know if I would feel comfortable telling someone they were not depressed, or did not have an problem with anxiety if they did not meet the criteria outlined in the DSM.  They may not be clinically defined as having the disorder, but once a person feels that they have a problem, I believe that it should be considered a problem.  It is difficult to define an emotional state, especially a powerful emotional state such as love, and make decisions about if you are not the person feeling that emotion.  Love is not a problem, but I think that even without the "symptoms" of love, people can still feel love.

I also enjoyed our discussion of what makes research or exploration scientific.  Is it possible to "scientifically" study love?  It may not be possible, although we can try to find ways to study what we believe is love.  If we take the word of people who say they are in love, the real question is if there is anything in common in the brain activity of people who are in love.  This question seems to have been answered to some extent by the studies that show increased activity in certain brain areas when viewing pictures of loved ones.  Researchers have tried to interpret these brain areas as components of the feelings of love.  But these results could probably be interpreted in different ways.  It would be interesting to come up with other ways to study the brain activity involved with love, perhaps using DTI to show pathways that have been strengthened.  Before and after imaging of love would be informative, although it would be difficult to find people who were definitely going to fall in love.

sberman's picture

characterizing conditions

I've been thinking a lot about how we define brain states or conditions in general --> We say someone is depressed if they have x number of qualities out of a list of y number of qualities in the DSM. So, if an individual has one less symptom than they should, we do not characterize them as depressed; even if they said they were depressed, we would say that they do not qualify. Although we do not have a defined set of characteristics that define love (as hard as we tried to develop one in class), I don't think that just because an individual's heart does not beat quickly around their significant other we would say that they're not in love. Does our utter failure to define love suggest that love is in a different category than other conditions/emotional/cognitive states? Or is it forcing us to recognize that our characterization of other conditions is too rigid, and should be more based on patient self report? Would we be transitioning to a more "floofy" form of science if we reduced the rigidity in classifying such conditions as depression/anxiety? 

I think that we should take into account the patient's personal, subjective experience more so than we do now. But, I'm questioning how this would work when we tried to do controlled research studies on different conditions (be they depression, love, etc.). I feel like we need some sort of criteria to define the population we are studying - otherwise, we can't make very many sound conclusions at all. 

VGopinath's picture

Being Wrong about Being in Love

     Whether or not we can define love seems to have become a critical problem for research and theories on the subject.  I'm surprised we haven't addressed the problem from the viewpoint of seeking a language to define emotions in general.  I don't think I would be comfortable saying that panic, anxiety, fear or even hunger are manifested similarly in others.  I don't know if I fully endorse the idea I brought up in class that David mentioned about love being a pattern subjectively experienced by all but evidence for that idea would be hunger.  Hunger makes some people irritable, it's painful for some and merely uncomfortable for others but we can look at leptin and other hormones controlling the feeling.  Similarly, love is different for everyone but perhaps we can look to the VTA (as Helen Fisher would say her research has demonstrated) to determine if a person is in love, regardless of what they think.  It draws us back to an earlier problem of whether or not we can tell someone if they're in love.  David asked the question in class "Can somebody be wrong about whether or not he or she is in love?"  and we didn't really address the question.  I don't think we would tell a couple who have been married for 30 years and have 4 kids that they're not in love if the tell us that they are in love.  Yet many wouldn't hesitate to tell a 13 year-old girl who has been "dating" a boy for 5 days that she's not actually in love.  My initial reaction was that if someone says they're in love, then they are. It's defined by thinking you are- upon further consideration, I would say that is wrong.  Many people say that they were wrong- after a break up or a few weeks later, many of these sentiments are heard: I thought I was in love with X.  I think I just WANTED to be in love with X.  I convinced myself that I was in love but I wasn't actually.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

nbs seminar: some general issues

Interesting conversation Monday night, both about the specifics of "love"/"pair bonding" and about a number of more general themes that have been revisited in multiple sessions this semester.  Some of my thoughts about the latter, trusting that others will fill in on the former.
I'm seriously intrigued by the issue of the "irreduciably subjective" and the tensions that seems to create between science as we are used to doing it/taught it, and ... science as it might need to become?  Suppose there actually is an "irreducibly subjective" element in love,  in emotion, in religion, and in many other aspects of human behavior.  Does that mean we can't do meaningful research in these realms?  Do we have to be able to clearly define "love" (etc) in advance and aspire to an "objective" way to locate it in the brain in order to do scientific research?  Or is there a way to conceive/do science that lessens the uncomfortable tension between current understandings of rigor and ... things that don't seem explorable in those terms?
On a related note, I'm also seriously intrigued by the "localizationist" presumption that we tend to bring to studies of the nervous system, and to other things as well.  Why do we think love (or language?) needs to be at a particular place in the brain, or derive from particular genes?  From my perspective, at least, one can read much of research over the past twenty or thirty years as evidence for highly distributed systems that lack simple cause/effect relationships.   Why are we having trouble accepting/teaching that?  developing ways of doing research that take account of it?  
And, along these lines, I'm intrigued as well by the recurring subject of what we teach and why and how, and its relation to peoples' responses to the readings this week.  Reading #4 was cited by far and away the most people as "best science," but was unmentioned as either "most interesting" or "learned most from."  Does it strike anyone else as noteworthy that there is a poor correlation between "best science" and "interesting" or "learned from"?  I wonder whether that has anything to do with how we currently conceive/teach science and whether it is perhaps another reason to think about alternate ways of doing so. 

David F's picture

What is love?

Much of our discussion revolved around the feasibility of defining love. Is love something that is, in principle, definable? It seems to me that much of the answer to that question depends on how we want to define it. I can't help but feel that if we need to define love in biological terms, we're a bit screwed. By that, I don't mean the conclusion that most people jump to: that love exists as something "beyond" the realm of the physical. Rather, I mean something that closely resembles what we discussed earlier in terms of the irreducibility of patterns when thinking about the merging of biology and religion. Vidya mentioned earlier that maybe love is just a "pattern" experienced in many possible ways. The impossibility of differing experience in identical brain states aside, this seemed to at least gesture at some kind of isomorphism, or resemblance, between two brain states both experiencing love. Upon closer inspection, however, we ultimately are forced to admit of some unavoidable difference between instances of love brain states. Then what makes a pattern a pattern? Interestingly, it looks like the question of love brain states becomes an analogue of the very question of love. Like the concept of love, the brain states of love share some vague sense of similarity, but which cannot be defined by any precise mechanism or pathway. This returns us to the question of irreducibility, but in a way that may appear more palatable now that we're dealing with love instead of religion. What difference can we define between that vague, (("floofy")) thing we call love and the HARD SCIENCE thing we call brain states?

P.S. We'd probably have a better time defining it in a Shakespeare class, if only we could stand the floofiness of it all.

rdanfort's picture

RE: floofiness

“What difference can we define between that vague, (("floofy")) thing we call love and the HARD SCIENCE thing we call brain states?”


I'd imagine that a good approach is to clearly determine what “hard science” concepts one is attempting to study (i.e. pair bonding) and relate your findings to “love” insofar as a given instance of love includes that concept. I couldn't promise that this will “explain everything”, of course, but it can pick off the most familiar and empirically-accessible elements of otherwise vague and complex ideas. It might be possible to determine what brain states are common to love given certain cultural and social constraints, or what the consequences of a given state are with regard to pair bonding behavior, and so on, and in this way winnow the “floofiness” of the subject. At some point, you'd probably need a new way to tackle remaining uncertainty, which I would imagine involves finding the conditions that make “love” or another floofy thing so variable or simply holding a certain amount of variation as “given”.


This is still kind of difficult. When a good study - such as the pair bonding one - is careful to describe exactly what it is studying and takes care not to generalize too much or draw conclusions about "love" that are not supported, it is still important for the reader to recognize these limits before deciding what the study teaches them. A parallel that comes to mind is the somewhat strained attempt to produce a model of creativity that could connect a patient's art to their cognitive capabilities - even if this were done perfectly, it's tempting to interpret a finding as answering a “big question” that it might not really apply to. I can see this being a problem as new attempts to define “pieces” of things like love are passed from researcher to researcher in one long, overconfident game of telephone.


In the end, I think that it might be important to remember that, should the scientific community find that certain aspects of love are highly variable in a way that makes general explanations impossible despite functional parallels, that is still an explanation.


Paul Grobstein's picture

floofiness, the brain, and science

I'm intrigued by the idea that future research in neurobiology may make "floofiness" something that has to be seriously talked about in science rather than something to be avoided. 

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