Medical Mondays 2On Saturday, the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute—founded in 1911 by some of Sigmund Freud’s disciples and long regarded as the most venerable institute of its kind in the United States—held a round-table discussion called “Love, the Interrogative.” The title was inspired by novelist Milan Kundera’s suggestion that “love is a continual interrogation,” and the participants were an interdisciplinary group that included an art historian/curator, a neurologist, a poet, a journalist who writes about Internet dating, and, of course, a psychoanalyst.

The aim of the discussion was to encourage an open-ended conversation that would shed light on this most enigmatic topic from these diverse perspectives. The discussion ranged from Renaissance painting to Russian literature to the Supremes, with science and psychology providing a foundation for the commentary.    

One of the most striking things considered was the fact that our era is the first in human history that permits us to see some concrete “data” about love and its physical states. The neurologist Lucy Brown, P.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, presented this material. Brain imaging studies now make it possible for us to see what specific areas are activated when subjects experience the feeling of love. For example, Dr. Brown reported that when shown a photo of the beloved, subjects’ brains were activated in the brain stem, in the “oldest” and most primitive part of the brain, which mediates instincts and drives like hunger and thirst.

Dr. Brown made the point that this is the part of the brain that is not mediated by more highly developed human capacities like reason; this may explain why love can be so strong, primitive, and—well— irrational.

Related studies have shown that passionate love activates pathways similar to those of addiction. (This comes as no surprise to those who have been unable to think of anyone but the object of their passion.) Equally compelling is evidence that shows that when the beloved is lost, the lover experiences symptoms similar to those of an addict who is going through withdrawal. This makes perfect sense experientially, but it is exciting to see it actually “mapped” out in the brain. Love is a physical state. No wonder it has the power to heal and its loss has the power to do so much harm.

But what about abiding love, which is the state that most people live in, since passionate love—what anthropologist Helen Fisher calls limerence—has been suggested to have an expiration date of approximately two years?  Marriage has a bad reputation among late-night comedians, and Andrea Bayer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator on the panel, ruefully spoke of a show she did for the Met in 2008 called Art and Love in Renaissance Italy. She had wanted to title it Art and Marriage, but was persuaded that she should not use the word “marriage” because, her colleagues felt, it would prejudice viewers against the show. Dr. Bayer was actually fairly uncomfortable with the final title, since love was a fairly rare phenomenon in Renaissance marriage. It was considered dangerous and destabilizing.

Abiding love, however, can be a great source of stability, both personal and societal. Those lucky enough to transform passionate love into abiding love experience greater health benefits throughout their lives.

Imaging studies have been done in China to shed light on this form of love as well. Subjects who had been chosen as examples of “passionate love” (but were still happily together) were looked at again a few years later. One conclusive finding was that the area of the brain associated with the individual sense of self was smaller. The findings suggest (and psychoanalytic theory supports this) that when we love another, our sense of self changes to incorporate the other person (“I feel like we are one person”). The sense of individuality diminishes as the incorporation of the other occurs. This can happen with violent rapidity when you are first falling in love.

Another example is the way a parent feel when a baby is born: From one minute to the next you become one with another person in a completely invincible way.

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  • Roz Warren February 25, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks.