Contrary to the greeting card industry, the seat of human love is not the heart but the head. More specifically, the brain. There we find a teeming network of neurons that weave their way so mysteriously into that immaterial thing we might call the soul. And while the soul itself cannot be measured—not by any craft of human agency—the brain itself represents one of the last true medical frontiers.
Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and researcher. If you’re on the singles market—or you’ve opened your spam folder recently—you might be familiar with the name “chemistry.com.” The site, partly founded by Fisher, boasts of its ability to match singles through a scientifically-based process.
Shrug your shoulders if you want, but Fisher’s done her homework. In February of 2008, Fisher delivered a TED Talk entitled “The Brain in Love.” The research she shares is staggering. When in love, Fisher says, there’s a part of your brain that activates, “part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.” But it’s more than that, she says, because with cocaine—or any drug—you come down from your high. Not with love, she says. And this “obsession,” as she calls it, “can get worse when you’ve been rejected.” After experiencing a breakup, “the reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving, for focus—becomes more active when you can’t get what you want.” And finally—and perhaps least surprisingly—researchers “found activity in a brain region associated with deep attachment to another individual.”
“Love is in us,” she concludes. “It’s deeply embedded in the brain.”
LOVE AS ROOTEDNESS
What we learn from the brain only reinforces what we learn from culture: that love is universal, and part of who we are. Earlier we were introduced to Simon May, a Yale professor whose groundbreaking work on the history of love weaves through literally centuries of philosophy and history.
Among the many great books he surveyed, May placed special significance on Plato’s Symposium, a work from ancient Greece. The work itself contained the famous myth of Aristophanes. In the myth, the gods created human beings that were perfect—only we had two of everything: two faces, two pairs of eyes, arms, etc. So perfect was humanity that we chose to challenge the gods. Rather than kill humanity (and risk losing loyal subjects!) the gods chose to chop every person in half. According to the myth, this set every human being on a search, then, for his “missing half.” In Plato’s view, man is a forlorn, lonely wanderer, cursed with the all-consuming desire for wholeness.
Though an ancient myth, May sees this same desire as operative in a variety of ways.
“This myth, like many myths, articulates deep human realities. We still say that we have ‘found ourselves’ and feel ‘whole’ when we stumble across that unique person who can ‘complete’ us. We still believe that there must be a ‘right’ person for each of us—the perfect ‘fit.’…For we have a sense of (re-)gaining something that belongs to our very nature, of restoring something primal…Over two thousand years later, we find Freud picturing the experience of the lovers’ union in remarkable similar terms. He describes the desire to merge with our loved one—and the ‘oceanic feeling’ of lovers that the boundaries between them are melting away—as a regression to a primitive stage of development when the infant was united with its mother…”
Here, now, we finally come to an understanding of what love truly is:
“Love, I will argue, is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life….This is the feeling that I call ‘ontological rootedness’…To feel rooted is to experience a relation to a ground beyond oneself, a ground that must seem insurmountably independent of us if it is to be a place in which we might anchor our being.”
The phrase “ontological rootedness” doesn’t quite sound that great when written in a greeting card, but May seems to be onto something fundamental: that love is really about the search for home, the search for a horizon that is distinctly ours.
HOMESICK FOR EDEN
In a way, then, love is about being homesick for Eden. It was there that God first fashioned man and woman for one another as bearers of the divine image (Genesis 1:26). Is it any wonder that the very first words of human speech were actually a love poem written from man to wife?
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23)
To bear God’s image, then, gives us the capacity to love. In his careful study of the “image of God,” Anthony Hoekema concludes that the primary way that man reveals God’s image is in his capacity to love one another.
The story—at least this first part of it—parts by describing the couple as “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Yet the funny thing is, they didn’t even know it. If you remember the Genesis story, it’s only later, after they eat the forbidden fruit that “their eyes are opened and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). No; before so much as a mote of wickedness had stained their world, this first couple felt totally “at home,” totally “rooted” to one another, to the created world, and to the God who fashioned all of it.
No one had taught them that they had to hide. They’d never known separation. Or rejection. Or mistrust. No one had needed to tell them that they stood before one another stark raving naked.
And that’s beautiful. Unclothed bodies, unclothed souls. Our whole discussion has been about what love is like in the “tWorld,” that is, the world of tradition, the world marked by devotion and commitment to one another rather than to self. And it is within the tWorld—and only in the tWorld—that love can truly flourish. Why? Because the moment I become concerned with self, my sense of “rootedness” disappears. And that’s why love is such a crazy thing, because in the shadow of the Fall, the best we can hope to do is sift some scrap of “home” from the ashes of paradise. But that’s what makes love simultaneously so possible and so difficult. In his recent book on marriage, pastor and author Tim Keller says that love is about being “known” and being “loved.” “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.”
So in a very real sense, even as we seek to define love, we come to realize that love defines us. The reason pop songs and poets have such enduring power is because, as Helen Fisher concluded from her research, “love is in all of us.” But unlike Fisher, Christianity believes that love is not “embedded in the brain,” but imprinted on the soul. It’s more than a feeling—even more than an action. It’s part of us, part of ourselves and part of our world. It demands that we nurture it, nourish and protect it. For without love’s root, there can be no growth, and without love there can be no home.
 Helen Fisher, “The brain in love,” TED Talk, February 2008, https://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_studies_the_brain_in_love?language=en
 Simon May, Love: A History, p. 43.
 Ibid., pp. 1-10.
 Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image.
 Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, p. 95.