Emergent Properties (Love, part two)

Ok, I promised this…a different way of looking at love. (I know, previous posts have described some incident in my life, then showed the science behind them. You will simply have to imagine the life incident for this one; although I could name names, I will not.)

Where were we? Ah, yes, love. The thing that makes us write poetry, sing songs, climb balconies in the middle of the night, write notes in the damp sand of the shore for the tides to carry away to her. The thing that makes catches our breath, quickens our heart, steals every second thought and nearly every memory. We once spoke of love as a gift (or curse) from the gods—Aphrodite’s blind bow-boy, Eros, shooting his arrows capriciously, striking any and all, leaving us love-struck. The motivation for this form of divine madness was ultimately out of our control. Although it sometimes still feels out of our control, we have relocated love; we no longer attribute our behavior to the influence of Eros, but to this thing called love, held deep in our hearts.

We have, though, simply substituted one fiction for another. Oh, I will not (never!) deny the powerful feelings of love, or that a person in love may act like a person possessed! But just as the appearance of a sunrise is also evidence of a spinning earth (instead of a rising sun), this beautiful thing called love may still yield to examination…

Let us begin at the beginning. How is it that you learn the word “love”? The people who were teaching you language (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, complete strangers) did not have any access to your thoughts, your feelings, your sensations, your memories. (I must write about “private behavior” some day soon.) It is quite impossible for any of them to have seen an emotion in you, pointed it out to you, and labeled it “love”. Nor is it possible that you were able to somehow peek inside their own private sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or feelings. All that you both have access to—all that can be pointed to and labeled—is what is publicly available.

A digression… How is it that you learn any word? Let’s start with something simple, and work our way up to love. How is it that we learn, say, the word “red”? As with love, there is no way any person can look into your thoughts to see your personal experience of red, nor can you look into their thoughts and see their experience of red. My students laugh in recognition when I suggest that this situation gives rise to countless late-night conversations on the theme “how do you know that you see the color I do? Maybe the color you call red looks to you like what I would call blue…maybe all of our colors look different to each of us…” Indeed, it is quite impossible for us to know. We simply do not have access to the private thinking of other people.

What we do have access to, though, is the real world. Our teacher can point to a red ball, a red block, a red sign, a red sweater, and eventually we generalize the concept of “red”. Anyone who has taught a child his or her colors has seen this process at work. The process may be explicit (“Point to the red ball. No, that’s the green ball; point to the red one!”) or subtle. Even a color-blind individual knows that the answer to “what color is a stop sign?” is “red”, even if he (The vast majority of color-blind individuals are male) lacks the biological equipment needed to sense the characteristic needed to generalize “red”.

In a very real sense (more real, I argue, than our current view), “red” is simply what our language community has agreed that it is. It is the set of thing in our environment that we have collectively labeled “red”. Red is fairly simple for a child, but as we learn to discriminate, we learn scarlet, crimson, rose, carmine, cherry, ruby, etc. The same sweater that is red to a child may be maroon to an adult.

“Red” is defined by the agreement of a language community. So is every other word, whether noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Anyone who has spent time with kids who are learning the language will recognize the effect that the language community has on language development, as we progress (as we did with “red”) from general examples to more specific uses of words:

Noun—“Could you hand me the mug? No, that’s a cup; I want the mug.”
Verb—“I said hand it to me, not throw it to me!”
Adjective—“The big one—the really big one. The huge one!”
Adverb—“Quickly, please—as fast as you can!”

Each of the examples above, though, requires a physical referent, something in the observable world which is a mug, not a cup, which is handing, not tossing, which is bigger or smaller, which is faster or slower. It requires something observable not only to one person, but to both (or to as many as necessary). But love is supposed to be this internal feeling, which no one else has access to—is it possible that a word like love is learned the same way that “red” is?

I cannot conceive of any other way it is possible. Until the day when telepathy—direct transver of one person’s thoughts to another—is actually demonstrated (it has been often claimed, but as yet cannot be demonstrated under controlled conditions—I strongly doubt that it ever will be), we are stuck with the reality of private thinking. I cannot read your mind, and you cannot read mine.

But what is the observed reality of the feeling of love? How is it that we come to know this word? Fortunately, there is an answer to this—and one which I believe will shed light on many other mysteries of the human experience.

Picture two people in love. What are they doing? Are they holding hands? Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes? Kissing? These (very observable) behaviors come to mind (among many others) because they are the public behaviors which were labeled as “love” when we were first learning the word! As we grew and learned, we added more behaviors to the list of things associated with “love”. Eventually, we generalized the concept “love” just as we did the concept “red” in our earlier example.

The trick is, with “red”, the public referent is fairly narrowly defined by our language community. “Love”, however, is a different animal altogether. That couple, engaged in earnest conversation—are they in love? Or is it a debate? The delivery of flowers: love, or obligation? Is that look love, or lust? Love, or respectful admiration? Is love independent from lust, or inseparable? Can there be love at first sight? Is it possible to love more than one person? (Is it possible not to?)

The truth is, there is no single right answer, or set of right answers. We each will have a unique set of experiences that teach us the meaning of the word “love”. Some experiences are ours alone; some we share with a few others; some we share with millions. Everyone who has heard the Beatles sing “All you need is Love” has a slightly different understanding of love than the people without this experience. Everyone who has seen Romeo and Juliet has a different view of love than those who have not. Everyone who has read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) defines love differently from those who have not. Everyone who has had reason to learn to say “I love you” in a different language has a different view of love than those who have never needed any but their native tongue.

And we have some paradoxical learning going on as well. A child about to be spanked may hear “I am only doing this because I love you.” A battered woman explains that she stays “because I love him, and I know he loves me.” A manipulative lover (that word!) says “if you really love me, you’ll do it…” We learn the negative connotations of the word “love” the same way we learn the magical positive ones, and as a result our definition becomes fuzzy, broad, and at times self-contradictory. If there were one Platonic Ideal of Love that we had access to, we might be able to say that some of these uses of the word were legitimate, while others were false. But no such Ideal is available to us; what is available is this rich exposure to varied public uses of the word. Like with “red”, we cannot know what is in another person’s heart; we can only see how that person uses the word, and what public referents they associate with “love”.

Your unique learning history is what makes you unique. Your unique history with the word “love” has defined it for you.

Note, this does not mean we cannot define it, or recognize it, or that it does not exist! It means that love—real love—is what you do, not why you do it. When we see a couple kiss, and say “that is love”, we cannot see the motivation, only the behavior. We may be wrong about the motivation; we cannot know. But we learn the word, just as we learned “red”, from these examples. Love is not why you write sonnets, climb balconies, send flowers, take moonlit strolls on deserted sandy beaches, think obsessively about her eyes, or let someone warm their cold feet on your back…love is writing sonnets, climbing balconies, sending flowers, taking moonlit strolls, thinking obsessively, and allowing cold feet on your back. Love is not the motivation; it is the actual behavior. We can study the motivation separately (and have), but if we are looking for a thing called love which causes this public and private behavior, we will not find it. There will be no one single chemical in the brain responsible for love; even though our behavior can be reduced to biology, love is an emergent property of a fuzzy category of behaviors. Having been learned from a multitude of examples, it is not a single thing. You might as well ask what it is about the metal sodium and the gas chlorine that makes salt taste the way it does!

(As for motivation, social psychologists have explored many variables—proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity or complementing attitudes, sexual cues, situational arousal, and more. Both operant and classical conditioning also clearly play roles in the learning of the public and private behaviors we call love. It may be a lot of work to try to understand so vast and complicated a subject, but there is no reason to think that love cannot be explored by scientists as well as by poets.)

From a behaviorist viewpoint, love is not something you hold deep within your heart, but something (or rather, a great many things) that you do. It is a fuzzy category of public and private behaviors; it is all those things that we used to say were caused by love.

So, does love exist? Yes, of course—but not in the way we naively supposed that it does. It is still wonderful, and it still turns your whole world upside down. Sunsets did not cease when we discovered that, rather than the sun rising, what we saw was the result of the earth spinning. Sunsets are every bit as romantic now as they ever were; ignorance does not add beauty, nor does knowledge take it away.

Perhaps you will, some day, be fortunate enough to watch a sunset with a special someone, and fall in love with one another. If you are really lucky, perhaps you’ll watch the sun rise together as well. And you will realize that neither the sunrise, nor the love, nor even the luck, are really what we originally thought they were. And it won’t matter a bit, because you’ll be with her (or him), watching a sunset while in love, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

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6 Responses to “Emergent Properties (Love, part two)”

  1. Kiless Says:

    What about vicarious conditioning? Is this what influences much of our judgements about what love is? Or am I reading from the wrong section of my Psych book…

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