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More Studies Show: The Emerging Neuro-Anthropological Science of Love

There’s mounting evidence that we’re far from the only species to "love." And, ladies, don’t believe him when he says he loves (or doesn’t love) you. Make him get a fMRI. (The same, of course, goes for you gentlemen.)

Discussions - 25 Comments

Doesn’t a lot depend on the definition of the word "love?" I scanned the linked article and I didn’t see anything that indicated how that word was being used for this study. If by "love" they mean the initial bio-chemical rush prior to mating, then it may well be that other animals "love."

Of late I’ve come to reflect quite a bit on what Dallas Willard uses as his definition for the word "love": Acting with intent to do what is right and good for the object.

This definition is helpful in several ways:

1 - It seperates "love" from "desire," which is what I suspect the study you linked meant by the word "love." Willard uses the example of chocolate cake to illustrate his point. "I don’t love chocolate cake. I don’t intend to do what’s good and right for the cake. I intend to eat the cake. I desire the cake; I do not love the cake."

2 - It is the only definition I’m aware of that allows me to understand how to love someone I do not like. I may not like someone, but I can still act with intent to do what’s good and right for them. Thus Willard’s definition of "love" helps also to draw a distinction between it and "admiration."

Marriages that last a lifetime are generally not built on merely desire, but something more akin to Willard’s notion of "love" -- a firm commitment to always do what is right and good for the other. Marriages built on lust or selfish desire flame out quickly.

I’ve not read the book cited in the linked article. But I suspect their definition of "love" is quite a bit different from Willard’s. Theirs is probably more closely related to "desire."

But then a marriage built on soley a resolve to do right and good for the partner could be made with someone you do not like, right? And that can’t be right. My guess is Willard is speaking about Christian agape rather than eros when he gives his definition. The best book on this, both from a Christian perspective, and simply as the best all around, is C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves in which Lewis distinguishes affection, friendship, the love of Venus(eros), and charity (agape). Perhaps Peter will chime back in here since he has said Pope Benedict has blurred/undermined the agape/eros distinction in his encylical Deus Caritas Est.

But then a marriage built on soley a resolve to do right and good for the partner could be made with someone you do not like, right?

I can’t imagine anyone entering into a marriage on that basis. How would marrying someone I don’t like be in their best interest? But it is possible that once within a marriage there may be many occasions where dislike for the other arises. Here an other-focused intent to do what’s right and good for them will serve both people and the marriage far better than any most other definitions of the word "love."

My purpose for posting the original comment was to draw focus to the difficulty inherent in the word "love." You cite Lewis’s book, which I’ve read. But I can assure you that not one person in 100 in today’s culture draws any such distinction when they think of the word "love." More likely than not what people today think of when they use the term "love" is "what I want to fulfill my selfish desires."

Going further, I’m fairly certain those who wrote the book cited by the link were thinking of something even more remote ... "love" being some kind of pre-programmed bio-chemical response to a set of stimuli.

All that is why I admire Willard’s definition. One can’t escape the how it is not about me, but rather them.

Let me go out on a limb here and say that love is more than a biochemical response but still has a strongly erotic dimension. Of course as soon as we say it’s more than the biochemical response we’ve gone beyond the realm of the silly scientific study, but let’s not completely disembody love, particularly marital love! The eros/agape thing depends on how we understand love of a personal God. Please wait until I can find a study of the Emerging Evolutionary Neuro-Science of Theology before I venture an opinion.

Peter wrote: "The eros/agape thing depends on how we understand love of a personal God."

You’re right, it does. And while I’ve not read the "The Emerging Neuro-Anthropological Science of Love" study, I’d be willing to bet they did not have as a basis of that study any notion of God in the mix.

Peter wrote: "Let me go out on a limb here and say that love is more than a biochemical response but still has a strongly erotic dimension.

It can, but would you agree that it does not require it? I’m sure you see the distinction, but many do not. The commandment to "love your neighbor" becomes impossible if eros is part of the mix.

Again, all I’m trying to do is shine a light on what was meant by "love" in the study you cited. It’s an important question. The term has been elevated to a lofty place in our culture. Yet most people have no idea what it really means.

The study considers neither what’s God-like nor what distinctively human above love. I agree that the commandment love your neighbor is not obviously erotic, because you are commanded to love your neighbor whether or not you like or even know him. But the commandment is love your neighbor out of love of God, and love of God is personal and so might be connected to or understood in terms of love of other persons we’re attracted to in a particular way. Love of persons is perfected in love of God, which is not selfless if you mean by selfless selves disappear. But the barriers (limitations of our powers of knowing and loving, sins) that alienate one self from another disappear. So in love of God our provisional distinction between EROS and AGAPE (or charity) dissolves. Don, Thanks for your smart and deep reflections, which have nothing to do, again, with the silly book I posted about.

So in love of God our provisional distinction between EROS and AGAPE (or charity) dissolves.

Agreed. Or put another way, our imperfect human understanding of the distinction is made better by the power of God in our lives.

Carl Scott mentioned Lewis’s "The Four Loves" earlier. That’s a book, I think, that would be way over the head of most everyone in our society -- including me. But the idea of better understanding what is meant by "love" is an important one in today’s world. I’m left wondering if the term "love" is now too far hijacked to ever been redeemed.

Thanks, Peter. I really didn’t intend to go too far down the path on this. It’s just that I have twitchy antenna when it comes to that term used in today’s world.

Carl, I’ll see your recommendation of Lewis’s Four Loves and raise you one: Josef Pieper’s About Love. The philosopher’s account is better than the Oxford don’s.

Peter, I get the sense that you resent scientific intrusions into the "human condition." Of course some scientific experiments are crude in comparison to what they are studying, but you have to start somewhere. Is it possible that you are afraid that one day they will succeed in explaining most of our uniquely human attributes by reference to biochemistry? Of course, that kind of reductionism isn’t likely -- human consciousness/identity is an emergent property of the brain -- it will require an "ecology" of the brain to explain our humanity.

Paul Seaton wrote: Carl, I’ll see your recommendation of Lewis’s Four Loves and raise you one: Josef Pieper’s About Love. The philosopher’s account is better than the Oxford don’s.

My question: how approachable is Pieper’s work to the average person, whose attention span on this subject is perhaps 10 minutes at most? That’s not a trivial question. See what I write below, in response to dain’s question to Peter.

dain wrote: Is it possible that you are afraid that one day they will succeed in explaining most of our uniquely human attributes by reference to biochemistry? Of course, that kind of reductionism isn’t likely -- human consciousness/identity is an emergent property of the brain -- it will require an "ecology" of the brain to explain our humanity.

I suspect you’re soaring far above the heads of the common man out there. The mere act of people seeking to discover the "brain science" of things like love or religious faith is having a profound effect on the average person. It holds out the prospect that our "consciousness/identity" is merely a bio-chemical thing, which by extension holds out the prospect that God does not really exist. I firmly believe that’s the reason why such studies are undertaken, and why such things are trumpeted in the likes of Time and the Discovery Channel.

Words carry meaning, which is why important words like "love" and "faith" and "spirituality" and "God" are systematically being drained of meaning by our modern culture. With the supports knocked out from under those words, it’s then easy to remove God from people’s minds. That, I propose, is what’s really going on here.

Methinks you are a bit paranoid. I have no doubt that some people read such science as anti-theological, but the scientists themselves are genuinely interested in why people do the things they do. And knowing that would be a great benefit...how many people off themselves over forlorn love affairs, for instance? How many die in jeolous rages? How many wars are fought over ’honor’?

Religious people need to start being a lot more targeted about their battle with modernity. You can’t simply say "this deadens the human spirit" and therefore refuse to investigate things. Science WILL investigate things, regardless. You must try to separate liking something from truth.

And if God wants to help out, he can just come down here and do it. His last words were some 1700 years ago (at least, he DIRECT words). As the Irish used to say upon deciding to leave for the New World, "I’ll wait no more for fire from God." God gave us these minds and this inquisitiveness...he shouldn’t blame us for using both in the quest to better our lives. I ask you...if you gave a small child a chemistry set and then left them unattended, who’s to blame when they blow up the basement (and themselves)?

Did I say anywhere that I’m opposed to scientific inquiry? What I’m opposed to is scientific inquiry that is then reported using loosely-defined terminology so that the casual thinker draws careless conclusions. The study into the "love" exhibited by other creatures is one such thing. My initial post questioned what the investigators defined as "love." My speculation was -- and is -- that for the purposes of their investigation they held a very narrow definition, relating to specific bio-chemical and neurological markers. But to the casual reader of such a report -- particularly one recycled by the popular press -- the message more likely comes across as: "Human love not unique; other animals no different from us." From a purely chemical point of view that may be true. But to humans the notion of "love" is a far, far more complex thing than merely what occurs in our brains and bloodstream. My main point is that such a distinction will not be drawn in the popular reporting because it doesn’t serve their agenda.

So, in conclusion -- scientific inquiry is fine. But it would be naive to think there aren’t people in the world who eagerly seek to exploit such things for the cause of evil. The evil may be in the form of something quite overt, such as biological terrorism. Or it can be something quite subtle, such as what’s been done with the topic of evolution. In the case of evolution, have you noticed how nearly all press reporting sets up a subtle false dichotomy? The options presented are either: pure evolution without the role of God, or a literal reading of the creation story in Genesis 1:1.

At the end of the day, God is still God and will always remain so. The objective Truth of Him is not a function of whether we grant his existence. But those who wish to deny God are actively at work, and they’re taking a lot of people with them down a path of hopelessness and, ultimatley, destruction. I can’t mandate that it not be so. But I can wish it wasn’t the case.

Oh, well, if you are simply saying that the MSM has an agenda, well of course! Any scientist will tell you (even those on the Left) that the stupid reporters always get it wrong (sometimes to distort, as you suggest, but just as often to create attention-grabbing headlines). Until the Right figures out how to take over the MSM, I’m afraid it’s an uphill battle.

As for God, He may well be there. Or not. I don’t know, and neither do you. Not really...you (and I) simply hope that He’s there.

"As for God, He may well be there. Or not. I don’t know, and neither do you. Not really...you (and I) simply hope that He’s there."

You may be surprised to find out that I agree with you 100%. Few things irritate me more than evangelicals who seek to prove the existence of God or prove the trustworthiness of the Bible. [Or worse: those who use the Bible to prove the trustworthiness of the Bible. :-)] In this day and age where the concept of proof is generally tied to things measurable and repeatable (hello, "science"), attempting to prove the existence of God in such a way is simply futile. They do the cause of God much harm in so trying.

There are good reasons to believe both, but both, ultimately, come down to a decision to believe, to place trust, to have faith.

The MSM is not the only collective that has an agenda. Many scientists do as well. The picture of the scientist as perfectly objective is simply a myth. Their agendas may be tied to ideology or, more likely, money.

My point about the objective Truth of God should have phrased more crisply: "If God exists, then He exists." That may seem self evident, but in this day and age where "truth" is a personal thing, many hold -- some without even realizing it -- that deeming God non-existent at some future time really does change the objective reality.

And on that note I’m going to go ride my motorcycle out in this beautiful creation that God may -- or may not -- have created. :-)


I really, really, really wish this had a "preview" function.

Dear Don in AZ: Pieper’s that oxymoron: a philosophical popularizer. The ordinary Jacks and Jills that I know could read him with comprehension and profit. Give him a go.

Dain: tertium non datur: between science and faith is philosophy, in my view. Philosophy helps distinguish between science and scientism; it keeps both science and faith honest, while both of them try to keep philosophy from having a swelled head.

Lots of good posts. Read Pieper. I don’t have any hostility to real science, but only to scientists who don’t know what they don’t know. Or, as Paul says, to scientism.

In re comment #7, Don, I taught The Four Loves in a Christian high school English class. It was a reach for some, understandable with help for most, and (to my delight) pretty fairly grasped by a few of my students. To think about "love" in those different ways helped ALL of them. We read it and we talked about it for the month of May, far longer than the few minutes you suggest anyone would take to think about the subject. At that age, they, every one of them, was coping with Eros in some way and to look at it with some measure of objectivity was helpful, especially in contrast with the other loves. It was better than the "Family Life" class they had all been forced to take the year before, wherein the focus was on how to plan a wedding and full of injunctions to marry for some neatly enumerated reasons other than lust.


If we presume that we are created by God, then however He made us to work, whether by some bio-chemical processes and in whatever aspect otherwise, it is just that; how He made us to work. So much of his creation works by chemical processes, why not at least to some extent, that? I can readily believe that a fMRI of my brain would look like a fireworks display when I look at object of my desire, because it feels just like that. Of course, I expect not all loves work like that, yet I can believe that one does. I wonder how the brain reacts to other kinds of loves, and other kinds of desire? I know people who seem irresistibly drawn to dessert, for example. If their brains fire up in the same way over such an object of desire, then perhaps I ought make nothing of this.


I should have thought the real question in this matter of love, and by this that author seems to mean desire, would be to understand WHY some particular person becomes the object of desire. If it is echoed in Nature, and I think in nature, creatures, of most species, are not always so particular, then why and why not? The familiar and comforting loves in all varieties, but especially in an extended relationship are easy enough to understand, as even friendship through common interest. Agape, is a curiosity and yet easier to understand as something of a created being, made in the image of his Creator. To me, that we have that kind of love at all carries something of evidence for our being created by a loving God, though I recognize this is no proof in any scientific sense. Eros, and why the particularity of the thing, is very curious to me. If there is a biochemical process, then why one triggers that process while others do not is the really interesting aspect of the matter. Show me the science of THAT.

By ’scientism’ I guess you mean some kind of secular religion that relies on the legitimacy of real science? Well, I agree with that...and I think most "real" scientists would as well. Peer review is such that most are painfully aware of how fragile empirical scientific findings can be. Yet, the philosophy known as ’science’ is the strongest philosophy yet conceived of by Man. I really don’t mind if religious people duke it out with Scientismologists, but I fear some religious people don’t know the difference between science and scientism...they seem to attack both in equal measure. Not a good thing to do.

Re: comment 18 by Kate ...

"We read it and we talked about it for the month of May, far longer than the few minutes you suggest anyone would take to think about the subject"

You had a captive audience, one that looked to you -- the teacher -- to set the tone and pace. You also had one at a Christian school, where C.S. Lewis would be revered. Try engaging the topic at a Starbucks. Or with a co-worker over some half hour lunch. You’ll get blank stares.

"So much of his creation works by chemical processes, why not at least to some extent, that?

I never suggested that wasn’t possible. I simply questioned the motivation of those doing the reporting on this supposed study. And I questioned the definition of the word "love" in the minds of those doing the reporting.

Take it further ... more than "at least to some degree" ... take it to "entirely." How does that change our notions of self, of soul and spirit, of God himself? Answer: it fundamentally alters the picture of ourselves and reduces God to at best a distant watchmaker. It divorces the concept of will and reduces our behavior to programmed chemical responses. That frees us from blame, responsibility and accountability.

We don’t yet have anywhere near the knowledge of our biochemical functioning to know if that’s how we work. But that doesn’t stop many people from reporting as if it was true. I have my conclusions as to their motivations, but I’ll not elaborate on them here.

Don,
Yes, about my class, it was as you say and some of my students were very bright in the bargain.


We had a kind of wrestling match in another thread earlier this year roughly about your second point, here,
which you might find interesting, or not.


But I propose to you this: that to manage our bio-chemical responses is where the will comes into play. We are accountable for how we manage ourselves. Hunger is the most immediate example that comes to mind, because right now I am hungry and have to leave for a dinner shortly. But I am resisting the chance I have of going to the fridge and feeding my hunger so that I can sit here and respond to your comment. This might mean that my urge to to express myself is bio-chemically irrepressible, or it might mean that engaging in ideas is more important to me than breaking a day’s fast.


As to your last point, I agree that some folks are VERY interested in finding something that proves that God is not. To presume that anything in science (the observation of nature) can "prove" such a thing (the non-existence of nature’s creator) is absurd. I also have more to say on the subject, but my dinner companions will complain.

Kate, re: #21 -- You wrote: "We had a kind of wrestling match in another thread earlier this year roughly about your second point, here, which you might find interesting, or not."

Thanks. That was fascinating. And a bit humbling. I’m just a simple country boy compared to some of you folks batting the ball on that thread. :-)

You wrote: "But I propose to you this: that to manage our bio-chemical responses is where the will comes into play. We are accountable for how we manage ourselves.

With appropriate boundaries placed on that, I would agree with you. But I follow with two questions, both related to that set of people and institutions that tend to establish the prevailing outlook on such things in our contemporary culture:

  1. Do they agree with you?
  2. Do they want to agree with you?

I would submit that in their heart of hearts they would concede that certain bio-chemical responses can be managed with the will. But I suspect they would resist with all their energy an effort to create a definitive list of what is controllable. There appears to be a desire on their part to leave open the door of possibility that some things ... many things ... perhaps all things are, in some case, uncontrollable. Yes, we are accountable. But for many that is something to be denied or avoided, in some cases at all costs.

If we rewind all the way back to Peter’s initial post, what I was trying to get at -- in my clumsy fashion -- was just this: there are many who very much want to deny ultimate accountability. The study about the physiological basis for "love" was, in my opinion, yet another attempt to lend credence to the notion that we are products of our programmed chemistry. Few would claim that a sea slug has a will or is accountable. Sea slugs simply follow "instict," which is driven by genetic coding. We are animals. Ergo, we are driven by instinct as well. The question remains: to what degree?

The study’s use of the term "love" was, in my view, intentional. My guess -- again, I didn’t read the study cited -- is their definition of "love" was limited to some physiological response to a stimuli. Few people consider our concept of love to be merely that. Many would hold "love" as a uniquely human thing; that which fuels our art, our music, our poetry and our passions. Yet by using the word "love," the authors of the study (or perhaps just those who reported it), the human was brought to the realm of animal. (Or perhaps animal raised to human.) The suggestion -- subtle, but there -- was that perhaps we really are no different than the animals. It follows, then, that if animals operate from "instinct," perhaps we humans do as well. And the door is then opened: our behaviors may not be under our control. Accountability is avoided.

All this is just my view, of course. I’ll confess to being deeply skeptical of the motives of most. Further, I’ll admit to suspecting that specific forces of evil (read: "Satan") are at work and many, many people are being used by him to achieve his goals. That last assertion I can’t prove, of course. And many will dismiss it as foolish superstition. But that is my view.

At any rate, I trust you had a nice dinner with your companions. Grace and peace.

Don in AZ, It was a nice dinner, thank you. The table conversation was on giving one’s children a moral and ethical foundation to face the wide world.

I’m glad you found the thread fascinating and since you did, I might have to go back and read it all over again. When I first wrote on this blog, I had no idea who I was speaking to (and still do not, most of the time) nor what I was getting into. Almost everyone has been most gracious toward my simplicity.


As to your questions, and please, I am laughing here, I fully admit to having no influence on what "they" think. It is appalling that people will claim to see no difference between animals and humans, as you say. I think to point at the particularity of human love is to poke a hole in the "instinct" claim. It speaks to the fact of our art, music, poetry and such speaking most often to the higher in our natures, and not to the lower. To say that we have no instinct is false, too, I think. It is human instinct as distinct from bird instinct, dog instinct, and certainly sea slug instinct.


Yet, Don, I think you might claim too much for Satan and to do so is to cede responsibility, blame and accountability, as well. Surely, to say "The devil makes me do it." is just as much a rationalization as to say "My bio-chemistry made me do it." claims of forces of evil makes me wary.


Maybe, is our bio-chemistry just another, more scientific way, of speaking of our human nature? No, I do not really like that, but perhaps it is some aspect of our human natures. I’ll need to think about it.

Kate, you wrote I think you might claim too much for Satan and to do so is to cede responsibility, blame and accountability, as well. Surely, to say "The devil makes me do it." is just as much a rationalization as to say "My bio-chemistry made me do it." claims of forces of evil makes me wary.

Careful ... I wasn’t suggesting Satan is making people do things against their will. I was suggesting that Satan might be at work planting the seeds of thought in some that they then use to work against the Kingdom of God. For instance, where do you suppose the notion that "There is no ultimate Truth" came from? That might be one of the most devious and fiendishly clever devices ever created. Many, many people have come to believe it. Why? Because people in positions of influence have led them to believe it. Did Satan force those influential people to take up the cause? No. Is Satan there, playing upon their essentially disobedient nature and urging them -- not making them -- to do things in opposition to God? Well, if Scripture is to believed ... yes. Are we able to determine to resist the temptation? Yes. Are we able to ultimately overcome the temptation? Yes, but sometimes only with the help of God.

I think there’s no question that our bio-chemistry has something to do with our human nature. I think the trap people fall into is thinking that our bio-chemistry has everything to do with our human nature. That I don’t believe. There’s something else, but it’s an elusive thing that can’t quite be defined, and certainly not measured.

You wrote: The table conversation was on giving one’s children a moral and ethical foundation to face the wide world.

Was there agreement that somewhere a singular, true ethical foundation exists? Or would you say the common understanding around the table was that there might be several?

Don, My children are mostly older. I had six and am down to the last one, a girl teen, at home. The other five were all boys and each has spent at least some time in some kind of personal "wilderness experience" of the moral sort. The rest of the table were teachers at the small Christian school where I once taught, who deal with teens all the time. Some of those teens are wonderful, yet many have gone off into wildernesses of their own after graduation. One of those teachers at my table has younger children and how to forestall problems was the real topic. There was not much disagreement that the rules-based approach (keep your hair short, do not have tattoos, don’t because I say so) does not do the job in the long run. That was not what I did, but is the way the school is run. Maybe that a "true ethical foundation exists" was not the question, but rather, how to establish it, was. This teacher loves the two sons of mine whom he knows and has taught. What did I do to give them the moral grounding that they have, and to which they return after choosing to stumble about for a bit, was his question.

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