Monthly Archives: July 2018

What is Love?

Sometimes love is only recognised when something leaves. And in the feeling of loss, the emotional tumult becomes manifest in some undefinable ache. Something in your chest that once was,  now  is not. Other times it is something that fills you, that breaks apart the worries of life and focuses everything into the space between heartbeats.

Is love just hormones? Or nerve receptors? Or is it something more?

“But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.” – Gabriel Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Love in the blood

It is a habit of science to reduce the complex into understandable pathways. By explaining something to a point of being irreducible we can better understand it. But for something as universal as love the idea may seem not just implausible, but somehow offensive.

After all, what does it all matter if we know our atoms, if we cannot feel love?

Scientists believe that love can be explained in terms of our physiology (i.e how our body works,) and this can be explained as way of surviving. From our earliest ancestors we needed something strong to hold us together, to cement a protective unit for our children.

Love seems to fit the call.

It all starts, they say, with lust. The feeling of attraction, physical in nature and overwhelming. Surges of hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen fill our bodies, and promote sense of wellbeing.

This is what the poets immortalise, the feeling of connection beyond space and time.

Next comes attraction, the impetus of familiarity. New hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine begin to work. Dopamine itself is a hormone much concerned with addiction, our bodies literally pine for the subject of our love.

That ache, often good if longing, comes somewhere in this whirlwind. This is where the stark images of colour and beauty found in songs finds home.

Finally comes attachment, a feeling mediated by oxytocin, serotonin and vasopressin. These hormones work in different ways, but science shows they foster feelings of connection and comfort. In fact, studies have correlated blood levels of these substances with healthy relationships. This is where the image of old hands intertwined on a park bench lives.

In a small town taking my hand from the words into a promised land. How I wish for a thorn in my heart and deadly was the rose that I got. – Kite, Dance Again.

Love in our hearts

So you may be wondering, does learning all of this remove the special nature of love? Was the lifelong love of Florentino Ariza nothing more than an interplay of chemicals on a lonely mind? Or is there something poetic to it, something that transcends the biology?

We know little about the brain, and less about the mind. Sure, with functional MRI we can begin to tease apart the physicality of thought, and with psychiatry the cognition of life, but even with complex models it seems something is amiss.

Perhaps love is just a victory of evolution, a hormone driven delusion designed to bring us together. Perhaps it serves no function other than to provide a stable resource base for the young and a gateway to reproduction.

But that doesn’t full explain it, much like a painting can never fully capture a mountain.

There is a point, somewhere between our dreams and our reality that life finds comfort. And the complexity of the human mind has led to great poetry, art, literature and film that portrays everything from the spark of eyes meeting to the squalor of heartbreak.

Within our love and pain we have created great beauty far beyond the dance of molecules.

So, for me at least, even if love can be categorised and explained by hormones and biology, it may never be captured. It exists between the heartbeats, and in that silence is a secret that no instrument can reveal.

Welcome home. Ships are launching from my chest
Some have names but most do not. Radical Face, Welcome Home.

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Coffee. Disney. Love.

Every once in a while there is a brief moment where our world falls away. Or at least, that’s what the songs tell you. A moment where the veneer of our daily worries retreats just enough to bring things into perspective. ‘A Disney moment,’ Angela would call it. And as she turned the page of her book, and heard the melodic clink of ceramic on ceramic , she finally learned what that truly meant.

*****

It had been a hard day. Josie had been difficult as usual, or a ‘bitch’ as Angela preferred to say (privately.) To Angela it seemed odd that a woman so similar to her could be so challenging to work with. But she supposed there was an element of misunderstanding, different expectations and reactions. But in the ongoing show-reel of her head, Angela was happy to entertain the drama.

‘You are too dramatic, just let it go’ her mother had always said. Angela hated to admit when her mother was right, but, annoyingly, as time went on, she seemed all the wiser. But she didn’t have to admit it, instead she preferred to pretend. There had to be a little entertainment. A hard day could just be another story.

But with a hard day comes something lost, something she needed to fulfil. And usually she just went home and watched Netflix. Let it all blend together. But, today felt different.

So, today of all days, she had decided to reward herself. She had always enjoyed an iced latte, but upon reaching the counter at Starbucks had found herself drawn elsewhere. An exotic Colombian roast. She had always wanted to visit Colombia, but work had always got in the way. The world never stopped turning for you.

The world of Disney princesses, fantastical princes and adventures was a far cry from what truly was. It was invented to make life bearable, and the brief breaths of romance and heroism were, as she considered, delusions. There was simply no magic left, just the odd physical pleasure, a new taste, smell or sound. A brewing Colombian coffee on a Friday night.

So there she was, mind buried in the events of her day, Josie’s (bitch) face droning on, the words of her novel half ignored, and her special coffee warming her stomach. But Angela wasn’t really there until she heard the ‘clink.’ And in a very human habit, she turned her head and saw him; the old man with the tired eyes.

His skin had greyed a little, and fresh whiskers poked out from his pale face. He had a small coffee pressed to his lips, which were pursed. A little of the coffee had spilled down his front, staining his white shirt (although, it was already a little yellow.) Angela liked that, authenticity and permanence were comforting in such a rapidly changing world.

But it wasn’t his shirt that caught Angela’s attention. It was his eyes, and something in his hand. Across the table were strewn pictures, some yellowed like the shirt, others new. An empty packet read ‘Charles’, which Angela vaguely remembered as shop up the street.

Every picture featured the same face, and as you glanced over the collage you could see it age.

For a moment Angela was perplexed, but then the man’s eyes answered her question. They were red, staring off beyond the polaroid in his hand. They seemed to look through it, as if back in time. She could see his mind working, struggling to put the past and today together. Something that she understood. But whilst he was clawing at the past, she often pushed it away.

Always chasing that quick reward. The moment yet to come.

But in this moment, as she realised that the man opposite her was saying goodbye to his wife, she had that Disney moment.  Angela felt things fall away, and something came into focus.

A Disney moment wasn’t about a fairy tale, but the moments that transcend our worries. The seconds that remind us of our dreams, and how they come and go. Where a second can become an eternity, and what’s lost can be held for just so long.

Life wasn’t about a mermaid or hero, but about the beauty of moments we cherish. How they could provide us purchase even in the harsh cyclone of our lives speeding up. A smiling face in a yellowing picture, a yellow hat in a shaking hand, anything could be that moment,

All of a sudden Josie,  her mother, the hard day and the quick reward seemed trivial. And all that was left was the old man,  his moment, his story and the timeless love. She caught her breath and smiled. The old man looked up, his hands trembling, and nodded. He held up the picture, pointed with his other hand and smiled.

‘This was at Disney Land,’ he said.

Every once in a while I like to write something different. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Ben