Reflections on Valentine’s Day: Love, and what scientists and thinkers found out

Recently, it was unmistakably once more Valentine’s Day , the celebration of love. In commemoration, this discussion will explore notions of love and its meanings from varying studies. In writing about “love”, is a call of hope, whereby we may find ways toward peace, not only within ourselves, but amongst all peoples everywhere.

Part of this discussion will analyze “higher love”, or the love of the muse, and its significance for understanding “our creative output”, some of our best human qualities. This is known to artists, sculptors, musicians, theoretical physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and everyone following a higher calling who also contribute something marvelous for humanity.

While many theorists have discussed cognitive functionality associated with artistic processes as Bayesian, or computational, or situated, or structural, and so on, it has also been well-established how many neural-chemicals are utilized for artistic creation, many of which are shared by “being in love”.

According to Katherine J. Wu, PhD Harvard University, we go through stages in the “love process” from “lust”, releasing testosterone or estrogen; and if “attraction” persists, releasing dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin; and through “long-term attachment”, releasing oxytocin and vasopressin.

Certainly, the brain is situated in cognitive action and function, and with the extended mind, and even categorical and computational, but in works of genius there is likely much more going on. Ponder for a moment: Mozart’s Requiem, or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or Rodin’s The Thinker, or Einstein’s E=MC2, or Plato’s The Republic, or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and so on. Therefore, what is “artistic inspiration” in these great works of complexity?

In the brain and during the artistic process, according to neuro-psychologist, Dahlia Zaidel of UCLA, the amygdala, hypothalamus, ventral tegmental, limbic system, subcortical regions, motor cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex are activated, regions associated with emotions, reward, vision, and movement, while dopamine and oxytocin levels also increase.

In the visual realm, the caudate nucleus, bilateral occipital gyri, bilateral fusiform gyri, and the cingulate sulcus are activated through pictorial artwork. While language is mostly limited to the “left brain hemisphere” in contrast to the musical and visual as part of the “right hemisphere”. In other words, art and creation are dependent upon multiple cerebral capacities. This has been called “neuro-aesthetics”. Furthermore, according to neuro-psychologist Robert Bilder of UCLA, those with enlarged amygdala may have exceptional artistic abilities.

Of course, we may simply relegate answers to these questions to the chemical and material without acknowledging, or even encompassing, true accomplishments at the highest cognitive levels. Beyond the biological, how do we understand such tremendous accomplishments from geniuses in the arts, mathematics, physics, and so on?

Artistic endeavors are likewise situated in memory and are formulated distinctly in cognitive action utilizing different “neuroimaging” processes, depending on the skills employed. While many also believe in “Divine Love”, like C. S. Lewis in his book, The Problem of Pain, “God is Goodness. He can give good, but cannot need or get it. In that sense all His love is, as it were, bottomlessly selfless by very definition, it has everything to give and nothing to receive.”[1]

The cognitive anthropologist, Harvey Whitehouse, explains religio-experiences may be what he calls “divergent” as consigned to different memory forms, long-term through texts as the Bible, or imagistic through shocking rituals such as some Filipinos carrying the cross for penance during Easter.[2]

The novelist, and survivor of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, once remarked: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. Indeed, humans need other humans for survival. We are social beings and we are constrained biologically, emotionally, and psychologically needing mammalian care. Indeed, we are born in neonatal states because of our large brains. Such a state of helplessness necessitates care much more than our closest non-human-primate relatives, Chimpanzees. Indeed, the lack of human affection through indifference and neglect certainly negates love. By not having been loved, we cannot in turn love in healthy ways.[3]

Hence, in understanding “what is love”, we need to understand “what is emotion”, and thus, we need to analyze what we mean by “emotions”.

As such, human emotions are quite complex, as are most things humans do. In some way, they are biologically and neurologically driven, and in other ways, they are socio-culturally derived. As anthropologist, Andrew Beatty has pointed out, we narrate our emotions, and emotional experiences through linguistic expressions. Other species never reach the complexities of such communication, whether personally, or musically, or dramatically, or fictionally, and so on.

As Beatty declares about emotions: “…Whatever their ontological status as cultural inventions, biological states, or constructed social roles—emotions are unified experiences; and this subjective unity, which bears heavily on social processes, is due to their conceptual or narrative structure as construals of personal situations.”

The biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, in her book, Why We Love, has demonstrated how neurochemicals influence how people love, or which brain chemicals are released for those in love.[4]

Fisher conducted a cross-cultural survey and found 88% of one-hundred and sixty-six examined cultures experienced euphoric-romantic love. She later tested some 2,500 individuals with fMRI brain scans to ascertain which parts of the brain lit up and utilized comparative neural-chemical analyses. She and her colleagues showed how the brain regions of the amygdala, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and ventral tegmental activated their reward systems from “being in love”, as well as increasing cortisol and dopamine, and for those “remaining in love”, releasing oxytocin and vasopressin.

While non-human primates engage in communal grooming when empathizing with another’s suffering. For example, when a lower-ranking male is beaten up by a higher-ranking male for no apparent reason, the victim is then communally groomed according to primatologist and neurologist, Robert Sapolsky.

Thus, whether we think of love as expressing our muse, or being in love with others, or the greater love of God, we are describing or narrating our emotions as humans. Such emotional states, and their origins, may have biological and neurological underpinnings, and may have evolved with us as mammals, helping us care for one another.

We as humans, the most intelligent species on this planet, must continue to strive to care for one another better, to love each other more, to empathize with those who suffer, to love ourselves, to love our planet, to love others in healthy ways.

We need to find ways to make a better world with love and for love and for the love of a future for our loved ones and for all of us—for a love of humanity.

By J. P. Linstroth 
J. P. Linstroth  has a PhD from the University of Oxford in Social and Cultural Anthropology and is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He is author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015).

[1] C. S. Lewis (1940). The Problem of Pain. New York: Harper Collins, 2001 edn, p. 43
[2] Harvey Whitehouse (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[3] Frans de Waal (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Harmony Books, pp. 13-14
[4] Helen Fisher (2004). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

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