On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion, by Berit Brogaard(Oxford University Press), $21.95/£14.99
Sometimes, when we are in love, the feeling is utterly intoxicating. According to Berit Brogaard, the overwhelmingness of love can go even further. “Indeed when we feel swept away by love it’s almost as if we’re under the influence of a drug, and it turns out there are neurological reasons this is so.” This emphasis upon the lived experience of love, and upon there being underlying neurophysiological and chemical aspects to it, are the strongest features of the book. True, some of the same points could be gleaned from a careful, detailed study of the relevant journals, but it is rare to find them stated so succinctly in an accessible and well-written volume.
Reassuringly, the suggestion is not that love is reducible to brain chemistry. Brogaard is not running a bad, or at least extremely oversimplified, position sometimes advanced in the human sciences – the kind of claim that Sheldon Cooper might make in The Big Bang Theory: his love for Amy Farrah Fowler is simply a chemical imbalance in the temporal lobe, and anything else is just mumbo-jumbo (with extra jumbo). Rather, Brogaard’s point is that brain chemistry is typically a part of the larger story, a real part of what is going on. “When you fall in love, your body chemicals go haywire.” In a sense, we knew this already, but it’s nice to have the point confirmed a little more precisely: the amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system which plays a role in fear, pleasure and the selective storage of memories, starts to work overtime. Things do not run normally or smoothly.
The love which is in play here is, of course, romantic love – the kind which leads to intimacy and sex. This focus is controversial, but I happen to be on board with it. Love of this sort gives us a good exemplar of love rather than an efficient way to confuse love and infatuation or love and lust. The thought, then, is that key features of romantic love (irrespective of gender orientation) carry over into other forms of love, such as friendship love, parental love and compassionate love. Love in each case comes in degrees, but the responsiveness to the other is always felt in a special way.
Brogaard suggests that she is offering a new theory. “I have proposed a new view of love: love as a conscious emotion is an experience of a response of the body or mind to something or someone else. It involves a perception of changes in the body or mind, and a perception of the other.” There is a little more detail, but even so, it is not obvious that the claims are especially new. The framing of the position is a little different from anything that has been written recently (or well) by philosophers who have been arguing about these matters, but many of the individual ideas are familiar from philosophy, literature and psychology: love genuinely is an emotion and so, like emotions generally, we can have reasons for love; there can also be unconscious emotions and hence unconscious love. (The latter is a particular favourite in literary accounts of love.)
To say this is not to make a deep criticism of the text. The text runs just fine. It’s a good read, pacy and informative with a nice balance of narratives, debate overviews and claim staking. Rather, my point is that it turns out to be very difficult to say anything new about love, although this is a slightly paradoxical point, given that there remains so much about love that we still do not understand. As a result, it strikes me that Brogaard may not quite recognise where the greatest strength of the book is situated, i.e. not in the statement of any strikingly original theory, but in the earlier chapters where feeling and brain chemistry are brought together and where the relation between love and rationality is explored. I’d read these again (and probably will).
As for the remainder of the book, there’s enough controversial material to keep most readers happy. For example, the view that unrequited love is a form of irrational love. I don’t have a problem, here, with the very idea of irrational love. Indeed, if there can be reasons for love there can also be occasions on which love fails to have the right kind of reasons. These two ideas go together. What I’m less sure about is the idea that unrequited love actually qualifies. Admittedly, there are cases of the latter which are obsessive and obviously so. Brogaard provides a useful narrative to illustrate the point. But other cases of unrequited love seem more like colossally bad luck rather than irrationality. Suggesting that unrequited love per se, or at least such love when it persists, is irrational, looks suspiciously like an overgeneralisation. It may also require us to think of love as slightly more strategic and goal directed than it actually is. Even so, what is a text without controversy? Something less than it should be, perhaps. This is a good read and not short on either controversy or insight.