What is love?

by Dorian Minors

July 25, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


What’s love? It’s a tough idea to wrap our heads around. We’ve talked about it here, and here, and here (and many other places besides). The issue with understanding love is that it’s used in so many ways. But, as today is the birthday of someone…

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What’s love? It’s a tough idea to wrap our heads around. We’ve talked about it here, and here, and here (and many other places besides). The issue with understanding love is that it’s used in so many ways. But, as today is the birthday of someone special, I’m going to write about it since it’s on my mind.

If you look at a dictionary definition, you’ll most likely come across it described as a ‘strong emotion’, usually either of attraction or affection. But as an emotion, it doesn’t quite fit traditional roles. Think about happiness.

Think about anger. Think about sadness. These emotions are distinct in the way they feel. You could even call them simple, certainly in comparison to something like love. You can feel angry in your experience of love, or sadness; grief and joy. But those more simplistic emotions are more discreet in their experience. We usually prefer to have separate words to describe even slight variations on emotion (like the difference between anger, hurt, and hate).

If not an emotion, then perhaps it’s a way of describing our current state. A thought used to summarise a state of being that can be experienced in any number of combinations. Psychologists might call this a ‘[cognition](analects/friendship-checklist.md’. But it can’t be easily categorised as a cognition, because of the intrinsic link that love has to ‘feeling’. A cognition is a thought. And thoughts aren’t always shaded with emotion.

So what about a motivation. Certainly the ‘interruption theory’ of emotion is one of the single most influential theories of emotion out there. It places all emotions firmly in the category of motivators. Emotions motivate us to act in certain ways through the experience of a feeling. Happiness encourages us to keep doing what we’re doing. Guilt dissuades us from doing it again. Shame motivates us to make amends. Love might be designed to motivate us to get closer. But motivations also come in the form of feelings that aren’t emotions. Like hunger. You feel hunger, but I wouldn’t use that to describe my emotional state. The difficulty is that love could also be considered to motivate us to do different things. To interact with our friends and family. To protect an object that you’re fond of. To make a romantic connection.

And no conversation about romance would be complete without talking about the evolutionary perspective. They might suggest that love motivates us to create a legacy. To create and protect the next generations. But is this an adequate explanation for the word ‘love’? Do animals love when they think about reproducing? Do fish? I’ve never heard a romantic tale of two salmon. And that’s because we have a very different idea of what romantic love looks like. Something that’s bigger. Something that’s more complex than simply making babies. That idea isn’t wrong either. Our experience of love isn’t a product of idealism. Our brain does the same thing when it’s feeling romantic love as when it feels the love of attachment, the bond between parent and child (learn about the different types of love here). But lust is different, in the brain. So the question is, are they linked? Is lust a precursor for love? Evolutionary theory suggests that love moderates love, to help us stick together and protect our children and to build and grow and develop. A social glue, if you will. So perhaps love motivates us to create societies.

I ask these questions of love, not to find an answer, because the answers are myriad. Each of these paragraphs have been and are being used to describe the experience of love by scientists in many domains. I ask these questions to show that questions of the mind can’t easily be understood by thinking. They have to be understood in the context of all the other questions and they can be understood in the context of the science of the mind.

Learn why so many people dole out terrible advice, because they only think it out (and don’t look at the facts). Or learn how you choose your friends with the friendship checklist (and how good of a friend you are). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

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