Taking it to heart

Posted on February 10, 2014 in News
By Sidney Dritz

Randy Hazelton and Sokvonny Chhouk

When you love someone, you don’t literally give them your heart (we hope), so what is this feeling that is as important to our emotional lives as the blood pumping through our bodies? What is love?

In a highly informal poll taken in the Woodbury Campus Center cafeteria at lunch time, not a single student volunteered a personal definition of love when asked. “I don’t like Valentine’s Day,” said Sunjung Kim, a sophomore nursing major. Iyann Mohamed, who she was having lunch with, agreed. “Next week I have too many exams on Valentine’s Day.”

One student with a defined notion of love, though, is junior women and gender studies and sociology double major Jules Purnell, who drew upon their experiences with kink to explain aspects of their own personal experiences with romantic and erotic love.

“In my own life, kink and love are very closely tied. My partner and I married back in March, and our love life, sex life and interest in kink are very much overlapping. My partner is in service to me, and that plays out in interesting ways. For them, providing service is a means of expressing their love and devotion.” Purnell explained, concluding, “All of us who are into [kink] are into it for different reasons, but many of us find that gently pushing each other’s limits or serving one another can be acts of love.”

Personal definitions of love are necessarily subjective, but science can give a more general explanation.

Psychology provides explanations for much of why people act the way they do in contemporary society, but the USM psychology department were as reticent as the student body. “Not an area I feel competent in discussing,” said psychology Professor Bill Gayton when asked for a psychological perspective on love. Associate professor of psychology and department chair John Broida was equally direct. “I know nothing about this topic,” Broida said.

Biology Professor Jeff Walker’s answer, however, did have a psychological basis. “From a neurophysiological perspective, love is an emergent, subjective set of conscious and unconscious behaviors and/or feelings that arise from a set of active neural circuits that have been created and strengthened by signaling mechanisms activated by our personal history,” Walker told the Free Press.

That is, in perhaps simpler terms, that love is the way each individual person feels, when a set of circuits are set off in their brain, interacting with their experiences.

Walker explained, “This is a circular and maybe not very satisfying definition, boiling down to ‘Love is the set of circuits that are activated that give us the feeling of love.’”

He warned that it would be a mistake to try to reduce the feeling of love down to nothing more than cell–cell signaling, but said that love is not alone in being activated in the brain by various means.

“This isn’t too different than, say, a definition of red. Red is the color that we perceive when circuits in our brain that give us the sensation of red are activated. These circuits can be activated by certain wavelengths of light hitting our retinas but can also be activated by input from other areas of the brain (imagine the phantom of the opera walking down the staircase with his red suit),” Walker wrote in an email to the Free Press.

Philosophy Professor Derek Michaud echoed Walker’s sentiment about the different forces behind love. “I’m sure that you’d get as many answers to this question as there are philosophers,” Michaud said, going on to explain his own answer, which is concerned with the various situations and explanations that the word “love” is applied to.

“Well, love is highly complex, as anyone who has ever felt this most celebrated of emotions already knows. Or as the underrated philosopher Ronny Cammareri says in the film Moonstruck, ‘it ruins everything!’” Michaud began, before exploring the differences between the love people feel for family members, for lovers, and even for food, and the fact that these three arguably very different sentiments fall under the same word, a fact that he traces back to the way the ancient Greeks talked about love.

“What makes all these things ‘love?’” Michaud asked, and answered himself that the thing that connects these different types of love is that they all involve a union of the lover and the beloved, in whatever form that takes.

“In erotic love that takes a rather straightforward form. After all we regularly speak of the physical union of sexual intercourse as ‘making love.’ But in other cases too when we love we are united in some sense with another. Love forms the emotional bonds between us and thus forms a central part of our subjective experience as social beings,” Michaud said.

Allison VanderLinden, the Christian Inter-Varsity Chaplain to USM’s graduate students, also traced her conception of love to ancient Greek roots, citing the four different Greek words for love in the ancient world, and the four different types of love they represented, as well as citing a series of Bible verses on the subject of love, notably from John 4:16 b,
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Rebecca Wohl-Pollack of Southern Maine Hillel gave a different religious perspective. “I would say that love, from a Jewish lens, is an action,” Wohl-Pollack wrote in an email to the Free Press.

“The word for love in Hebrew is ‘ahavah,’ with the root built upon the consonants ‘h-v’ meaning ‘to give.’ Therefore, you can translate the word ‘love’ as an act, the act of giving.”
So there it is.

This Valentine’s Day, remember that love is strange, hard to define and analogous to the process of seeing the color red. It is a concept that has been an evolving part of human society for thousands of years, might be divine and might ruin everything, and is probably best expressed through actions.