The Washington Post

Valentine’s Day: Love explained, sort of

[My story on the Mysteries of Love, in today’s Style section. This was the photo department’s idea and I supplied the text. So it helps if you look at the pics.]

A middle-aged couple huddled under a blanket at a picnic table in the park. So adorable! The two were leaning into one another, combining body heat, talking softly on a chilly winter afternoon. Cozy. Merged for protection. And let us repeat: middle-aged. This was the perfect image of enduring love, the dream of every person, the whole “On Golden Pond” fantasy. It can happen!

But when a Post photographer approached and asked to take their picture, they declined. The photographer thought: Affair?

The photographer was about to leave when the man walked over and apologized.

The problem, he said, is that we’re breaking up.

Ouch! Didn’t see it coming.

Love is the central mystery of life. You can’t see inside the heads of other people or into their hearts, to use a metaphor that somehow has survived 400 years of medical research. You can barely know your own thoughts.

Love deceives. It confuses. It heals and it hurts. It can make you lose your mind. It should come with a warning label. Carolyn Hax, a Post advice columnist, suggests: “Don’t operate heavy machinery when you’re under the influence of this stuff.”

Yet people still are trying to explain love, to measure it, calibrate, capture it with advanced medical imaging. The science of love is in the air. Scientists are homing in on the neurochemistry of love. The love experts talk about dopamine and oxytocin and vasopressin and opioids. They study brain scans of people in various throes and permutations of love, and say things such as (we got this the other day from Helen Fisher, a pioneer in the field, and a professor at Rutgers): “We found activity in a tiny little part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area.”

Yet when you’re in love, it doesn’t feel like the ventral tegmental area is the cause.

It seems like, for example, that the eyes are more important. The hands. And other parts.

A recent study, highly publicized, suggested that women prefer the smell of men who produce a different set of disease-resistant antigens than they do. It’s like the DNA is deciding on a mate. Are we animals? No, more like robots. Human mating behavior varies from individual to individual, but collectively, we obey the commands of biology. We follow reproductive strategies of which we are barely conscious. The man possesses billions of sperm, the woman releases only about 400 of her eggs, and from the difference emerges a million romcom screenplays.

Yet when you reduce love too much, you lose the essence of it, the texture, not to mention your audience (boring!). It may be that love demonstrates the limits of empirical inquiry. “The Science of Love” flirts with being an oxymoron. Love is an emergent phenomenon, like consciousness, and thus a little bit squishy, immeasurable, enigmatic. Water is two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, prone to joining other such molecules through bonds in the hydrogen atoms — but that tells you nothing about what it feels like to be wet.

We’re looking at a photograph of a mother, a father, a newborn. She’s kissing the baby. The baby has launched its relentless project of reeling in the parents. The two have become three, forever connected, with the child now carrying the nerve endings of the mother and father. Give it any technical name you want — this is a picture of love, abundant.

[Click here to keep reading.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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