What is Love? (Baby don’t hurt me…)

An interesting video I found on the Internet (where else) has made me think about love lately. It’s kind of long but really fascinating and worth a watch in my opinion.


 If you didn’t take the time to watch it, here’s a quick summary: Researchers at The Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging hosted the 1st Annual Love Competition, using an fMRI machine to measure activity in the brain’s dopamine, serotonin, and ocytocin/vasopressin pathways. These chemicals are associated with feelings and experiences of romantic love in humans, and so theoretically could be used as a concrete way of measuring the amount of love someone feels.

 Seven volunteers participated in the competition, ranging from 10 to 75 in age. The competitors were asked to think deeply about a person they loved for five minutes, while the fMRI quantified their feelings. Whoever had the most activity in the named neural pathways would be declared the winner.

 I’m not too knowledgeable in the way of science (future English major right here), but I thought it was worth noting that the study specifically said that these chemicals were associated with romantic love. Does this mean that different types of love—more on those below—give off different, identifiable patterns of chemicals, or are the researchers just using romantic love as a general term, and does all the love our brain feels show up the same on an fMRI scan? (I really don’t know the answer to this question, so if any of you science people out there can enlighten me, say something in the comments!)

 The Ancient Greeks had four distinct words for and types of love:

  • Agape—unconditional love, in a deeper or more mature sense than just attraction. It could refer to a parent’s love for a child or love for a spouse/partner. Christians use the word to convey the unlimited love of God.
  • Eros—romantic, sensual love, with an intimate connotation.
  • Philia—friendship and sense of loyalty that comes from familiarity with family, community, and friends.
  • Storge—a natural type of affection felt within family relationships.

The specific type of love the study measures interests me mostly because of the second place winner of the competition: 10-year-old Milo, so said he thought about his newborn cousin “because she’s very cute.”

I remember when I was 17, I had been dating this guy for about a month when a friend of mine asked me if I’d told him that I’d loved him yet. She asked in a way that suggested that this was just another “base” that one reaches in a relationship, and that if it hadn’t happened yet, then it would eventually. I remember incredulously responding that no, I hadn’t told him I loved him because I didn’t love him. That makes me sound kind of harsh, but I didn’t love him in the unconditional, “true” sense that I thought love meant. I definitely was attracted to him and enjoyed being with him, but didn’t think that this meant that I loved him. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with those who decide to inform their partner of their love for s/he at the age of 17 or after a month of dating—I believe that young people can transcend our “raging hormones” and find a real, true connection with another person.

I just wasn’t there at that age, and I still don’t think I’ve experienced that type of love yet. But that doesn’t devalue other kinds of love, which I believe can be just as strong. I love my family and friends much more deeply than I can express in this sentence.

In the end, the winner of the love competition was 75-year-old Kent, who thought about his wife Marilyn (who also participated) during the study. He explains that their love began as a very passionate, romantic type love, but over the years evolved into a more mature feeling of respect and admiration. I think this wonderful juxtaposition with Milo’s very basic (but still strong) love for his cousin, which shows us that love really cannot be truly predicted, labeled, or boxed.