labels (love, part 3)

So…where does that leave us? What are the differences between saying that love is a label we put on a fuzzy category of public and private behavior, and saying that it is an internal state that causes these public and private behaviors?

Well, part of the difference (improvement, I would say) is not so much that it answers some of the age-old questions about love, but rather that it suggests that the age-old questions might be wrong. Copernicus did not answer the question “how does the sun climb through the sky?”, but rather showed that the question itself was faulty. A change of perspective allowed him to answer the question “why does the sun appear to climb through the sky?”, which not only appeased the earlier curiosity, but also added tremendously to our understanding of the universe.

How can I tell the difference between True Love and simple Infatuation?” (One love researcher, when asked this question, answered simply “hindsight.”) The question presupposes that the two terms are definable (say, by a standard list of characteristics for each) and that these definitions can be compared with one another for similarities and differences. In truth, there is no reason that both definitions, fuzzy and individual, cannot overlap broadly. Indeed, if the researcher mentioned parenthetically above is right, then the definitions are identical while one is in the midst of it, and only after sufficient time has passed can one see, in hindsight, the key difference.

What is the chemical responsible for love?” Um…this presupposes that there is one thing called love, with one chemical signature. This may sound reasonable at first…so let me use a different example. Or two or three. Picture someone with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I ask students this one, and I get a classroom full of disparate descriptions; this one checks stoves, this one touches things in multiples of three, this one has a ritual about light switches. There may or may not be one single cause of these very different behavioral patterns. We have labeled a spectrum of behaviors “OCD” because we see similarities, but we can only infer that the similarities are because of an underlying cause. There may (or may not) be different causes for each of the different patterns, which we have grouped together under one label. Our labeling of something does not magically make it the same as other things with that label; it is what it is, regardless of how we label it.

Another example, from an argument I had recently about Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). The published anecdotal accounts of NDE’s list many different sorts of phenomena—from “seeing a bright light” to “feeling a sense of euphoria” to “having one’s life flash before one’s eyes”, and more. The first two (light and euphoria) are most commonly explained by skeptics as the result of hypoxia—the supply of oxygen to the brain is reduced, and this causes (in experimental manipulations) a bright tunnel-vision perception and a giddy euphoria. Hypoxia seems a perfectly good explanation for these common NDE phenomena. But those who think NDE’s are evidence of something beyond death point out that hypoxia does not explain the phenomenon of having one’s life flash before one’s eyes. Nor does it explain numerous other experiences claimed by others who have been through an NDE. Hmmm… If we look more closely, we see the source of the problem. There is a wide range of experiences that have been swept into the catch-all category “Near-Death Experience”. One individual may have had her heart stop on the operating table and have been at the point where she had no detectable brain activity before being revived. Another individual may have been in an automobile accident which should have killed him, but which he was, miraculously, able to walk away from. Another lost consciousness, fainting, with no doctors around to check pulse or brain activity; if her friends say “I thought you were dead!”, she may describe her experience as an NDE. Each of these types of experience, and many more, have been cited in the NDE literature; there is absolutely no reason to suspect that each of them involves the same underlying physiological processes. Hypoxia still explains the bright light and euphoria of the individuals who have been close to brain-death. The “life flashing before one’s eyes” does not happen to this group, but to others with vastly different NDE’s.

But I was talking about love. The same word serves to express our attitude toward a lover, a child, a friend, a parent…even ice cream. Is it really reasonable to expect one chemical (or even one complex combination of chemicals) to explain each of these? Taking it further, if (as Hikmet says) “you can’t wash in the same river even once”, is it reasonable to think that my love for the same person is reducible to the same chemical each time I love her?

Do you mean the same thing when you say ‘I love you’ as I do when I say it?” Um… the only possible answer to this is “yes and no”. It is impossible that two people will have exactly the same learning history with the word, so no. But… you understood, didn’t you? You didn’t sit there, sounding out that middle word, trying to figure out if you should be insulted, or should be passing the salt or something. There is enough overlap in our learning that you can be fairly confident that the words mean the same. Of course, the more different your cultures (including the micro-culture of your family), the more different your meanings; some people are more expressive, others reserve “I love you” for the most special occasions. Perhaps the best answer is to be a good behaviorist again—if love is a set of behaviors, answer your question by watching. Is the “I love you” accompanied by other evidence? As someone I love once said, “I am listening to your words—but I am watching your feet.” Or, to paraphrase Forrest Gump… Love is as Love does.

I have the urge to post a poem I love. I mentioned Hikmet above; the line I quoted is from the poem “Things I didn’t know I loved” (appropriately enough). It makes me wish I could read Turkish…

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea
Koktebele
formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand
his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
with a sable collar over his robe
and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t
be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

19 April 1962
Moscow

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5 Responses to “labels (love, part 3)”

  1. Kiless Says:

    Just quoted part of the poem on a wedding present card.

    No, not that part.

  2. purefnevyl Says:

    I love women for the same reason that I love ice cream. They taste good. So I guess love is simple sensory stimulation.

  3. thebehaviorist Says:

    Kiless–which part?

    purefnevyl–do you, or did you ever, have a pet that you loved? Do you love your parents? Is there a particular song or poem that you love? In each of these cases, how do they taste?

    Yes, women taste good. They also smell good, look good, feel good, and sound good (well, the ones I am thinking of). But your conclusion is premature. No behaviorist would try to oversimplify love into “simple sensory stimulation”; such a view is much too easily dismissed. We learn to love, learn what love means, learn that it does not mean the same to all.

    I have heard neurobiologists speak of “finding the chemical in the brain that causes love”. They never will do so. Love is not one thing.

    And I, for one, am glad of it.

  4. purefnevyl Says:

    The pet was a bit salty.

  5. thebehaviorist Says:

    I won’t ask about your parents, then.

    🙂

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