(Neuro)essentializing love

One of the most popular posts of all time here at Neuroethics at the Core is entitled The Science of Love by Sara Parke .  The post deals with the discomfort that Sara felt as she began to explore the  notion that love is mediated by the brain, prompted by work she did in a research lab as an undergraduate at Stanford. Even without a complete understanding of the underlying neurobiology, once one begins to ponder how love might work, most people fall into a well of despair as they realize that love, a most cherished experience, is based upon the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals.

This is a version of neuroessentialism, a philosophical position and cultural meme that has as its premise that we are our brains, with the inevitable corollary that even the most juicy and intimate aspects of our lived experiences are mediated by that 3-pound bag of chemicals between our ears. [Shameless self-promotion – I have a chapter on the topic of neuroessentialism in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics.] Even a hard neuroessentialist such as myself finds such ideas dispiriting – at least at first blush. When I first became aware of such notions many years ago, I experienced the full range of emotions that Sara describes so nicely. But over time, I have learned to be able to hold the thought that love is, at its essence, neurochemical and simultaneously experience the full joy that this emotion provides. My claim is not that everyone can comfortably accommodate such dissonant ideas, but rather that this process of neuroessentialization, along with its accompanying cognitive dissonance, is an inevitable by-product of increased media attention to neuroscience explanations of everything (that such stories are incomplete is another matter entirely).

I was prompted to thing about Sara’s post again after viewing a short film called Love Story which deals with some of the same material in a very compelling manner – it is perhaps no surprise then that it won the recent  “Brains on Film” competition hosted by University College London.  Enjoy.

Hat tip to grrlscientist


5 thoughts on “(Neuro)essentializing love

  1. I’m not sure why UCL decided to borrow the title of the classic overwritten Ivy League romance for their film (I can only hope they haven’t had occasion to view its namesake), but if I may suggest a companion piece, I’ve always been very fond of this 2007 episode of WNYC’s Radiolab entitled “This is Your Brain on Love.”

  2. Buber’s writings, especially I&Thou, would be a great remedy for any attempts of scientification of love.
    All the best

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