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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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Janaway alone and do not necessarily represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of flickr. 



  • Ben writing beautifully as always 😍
    Whatever love is, I know it’s unconditional and everlasting ☺

  • Love as a social construct? It is depicted in literature, film and media continuously, affirming, reaffirming and sometimes challenging the collective understanding of the concept.

    I like: bell hooks, all about love and Simone de Behaviour, She Came to Stay.

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