Happy Valentine's Day: Is Love Just Mirror Neurons, Oxytocin, and Vagal Tones?


Love is something tangible, though indefinable. It is something realized, glimpsed, lost, forgotten, abandoned and, ultimately, inescapable in day to day life. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best when he wrote, “All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase — ‘I love you.’” We are always in a constant motion towards and in search of those things we attach love to. But, what “love” is can never be adequately articulated.

Love, much like its very close relative, quality (or perhaps they are even one in the same) remains elusive despite being approached with definitions from the most reputable of places. A search of “what is love” on the internet results in a myriad of scholars weighing in with sure-fire conviction with words that tell us what the love we feel or see is. Passion, intimacy, commitment or lust, romance, attachment or (most recently) mirror neurons, oxytocin, vagal tone all approach an answer to a question we ask knowing no answer will ever be good enough.

Love should always remain in that annoying human-space of “it is what it is” because in the end, we all know what it is and it is going to be different for everyone.

As Valentine’s Day looms on the less than two-weeks away horizon, the thought of love is forced into the public realm. In grade-school, mass produced Valentines will be exchanged and, in older places, expensive dinners will be bought and wine will be consumed. It is the indulgence of this stereotypical “love” that leaves many feeling a sense of urgency that they might be missing out on something. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith writes about a recent research project that found love to be nothing more than mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tones.

Love, in short, is just chemicals.

According to the research of psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, we experience the essence of love any time we have a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She goes on to say that love is any positive connection we make during the day whether it is with a significant other, a co-worker, or a stranger in the street. Love, according to Fredrickson, exists only in person-to-person moments.

If someone is telling a story, the brain patterns of the listener may begin to mirror those of the person telling the story. The hormone oxytocin is released when a guy pats his buddy on the back at work. If someone meditates compassion towards another they increase their vagal tone that in turn mediates social connections and bonds making more “micro-moments” of love possible. Fredrickson offers a world where love is possible anywhere and everywhere, leaving the “one true love” myth officially debunked.

Or is it?

As a panel in The Guardian illustrated, love, when approached from all angles can become something complex. To the physicist, love is chemistry. It is simply hormones and chemicals being released in natural response to triggers. Love is something uncontrollable. To the psychotherapist, love is all about categories. It is not one thing. It is a multitude of emotions experienced with different people in different ways. To the philosopher, love is passionate commitment and to the novelist, love is the driver of all of our stories.

Then there are the first 10-minutes of the movie Up, which is one of the best love stories toldThose 10 minutes might be the best picture of love to ever grace a screen and they're so simple. They're everything and nothing at all.

Love, as countless writers, musicians, film-makers, dancers, and artists have explored is not something that can be easily captured in three words or in three chemicals and it is not something mythical and unattainable. And, on top of everything, it is not going to be something we can all agree on. What Fredrickson offers in oxytocin, vagal tones, and mirror neurons is the same thing that Dr. Helen Fisher gives us with lust, romance, and attachment. Psychologist Robert Sternberg offered up passion, intimacy, and commitment as his ingredients of “true love” while Dr. Deborah Anapol defines love in Psychology Today, above all else, as free.

All of these experts throw more and more words into our collective understanding that love is nothing we can truly grasp. It's something we can see, experience, and share but it is also something deeply personal that one description will never fit.

Aristotle said that “love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” This idea of love boils down the popular concept we all have in our minds: two living things sharing a moment (or moments) of oneness. Love is an exchange of given and returned emotion between two living things. It is the strongest of bonds that we feel and whether it is fleeting or lasting, it is this simple exchange at its core. Even according to the somewhat controversial research of Fredrickson, love is this simple. It is what my co-worker would call “being of the same mind.” It is enjoying a movie in a crowded theater, it is being in the presence of your dog, it is listening to a song in the car on a road-trip, it is being absolutely content with yourself (if you consider yourself a person to love) for 10 minutes while you finish your coffee.

Love can be anything, anybody thinks it is: Complex emotions, organic chemicals, or simple being. We will never have an adequate answer no matter who gives it to us, we will just always be moving nearer to and farther from those things we know and recognize for what they are, love.