“Love is not merely lust, it involves partnership as opposed to coupling.”
Ok, I admit it, that sounds like one of my infamous one-liners. In fact, it’s the result of scientific research into love.
Amsterdam’s NEMO Science Centre boasts 12 interactive exhibitions. The “Journey Through the Mind” is one such “interactive gallery” on psychology, cognition and the brain. The exhibition is brimming with experiments and interactive games on; how we perceive and interpret the world, on feelings and emotions, the psychology of memory and learning, and how we interact with each other. The most striking exhibit was a video booth which allowed users record what the “big L word” means to them.
I found it inspiring. A week into the trip, and I have fast learned that science often constitutes serious business. Rarely is science communicated with a light hearted view. It got me thinking… what is love, why do we fall into it and what does science have to say about it?
I have then, decided to set my “bad boy” image aside and let my soft side roam free.
One of the most poetic explanations of love dates back to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium. During a banquet, each participant was asked to explain the mystery of love.
Once upon a time, Aristophanes’ story goes, man and woman where still one: roly-poly impressive double creatures, with four arms, four legs and two heads facing each other on one and the same body. Their strength, pride and arrogance, however, had no limits. They aspired to climb higher and higher yet, all the way to the heavens, challenging the God’s themselves.
So enraged did the god Zeus become, that he furiously split the creatures in two, humbling their pride and diminishing their strength. Apollo rearranged the anatomy of the remaining halves into the odd and incomplete forms in which we now find ourselves. To this day, we roam around the earth, one half desperately searching for our other half, in order to reunite. The desire and the pursuit of the whole, concluded Aristophanes, is what we call love.
So then, what does science say about love? ‘Till recently, “serious” science treated romantic love as an invention of civilised society with spare time to indulge in flowery prose. Lately, I learned, scientists across a broad range of disciplines have had a change of heart about love. Research reveals that love rests firmly on the foundations of evolution, biology and chemistry.
The notion of romantic love, began to blossom on the plains of Africa when our ancestors started to walk upright. Bipedal walking forced the human pelvis to grow thicker than that of great apes, in order to bear the entire weight of the body, making the birth canal much smaller. This had serious consequences for child bearing. For while the birth canal was becoming smaller, the brain and head where growing larger.
Nature’s solution was to have babies born very early in their development. Unlike baby baboons or chimps, the human child is helpless for several years instead of a few months – the longest infancy in the animal kingdom. On open grasslands, one parent would have a hard and dangerous time handling a child while foraging for food, making it critical to pair up with a mate to rear the young. Love served the evolutionary process of pulling males and females into long-term partnership, which was essential for guaranteeing the survival of their offspring.
So, it seems we are biologically predisposed to love romantically. What seems on the surface to be irrational, intoxicated behaviour is in fact part of nature’s master strategy – a vital force which has helped humans survive, thrive and multiply for thousands of years.
So, love has everything to do with it, and is not just a second hand emotion after all…