What is love?

From the fields of science to sociology, politics and philosophy, here is what Stanford research says about love and romance, in the past and present day.

For centuries, people have tried to understand the behaviors and beliefs associated with falling in love. What explains the wide range of emotions people experience? How have notions of romance evolved over time? As digital media becomes a permanent fixture in people’s lives, how have these technologies changed how people meet?

Examining some of these questions are Stanford scholars.

From the historians who traced today’s ideas of romance to ancient Greek philosophy and Arab lyric poetry, to the social scientists who have examined the consequences of finding love through an algorithm, to the scientists who study the love hormone oxytocin, here is what their research reveals about matters of the heart.

How romantic love is understood today has several historical origins, says Robert Pogue Harrison , the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and a scholar of romance studies.

For example, the idea of finding one’s other half dates back to ancient Greece mythology, Harrison said. According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, humans were once complete, "sphere-like creatures" until the Greek gods cut them in half. Ever since, individuals have sought after their other half.

Here are some of those origin stories, as well as other historical perspectives on love and romance, including what courtship looked like in medieval Germany and in Victorian England, where humor and innuendo broke through the politics of the times.

Where do people find love today? According to recent research by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld , meeting online is now the most popular way to meet a partner.

"The rise of the smartphone took internet dating off the desktop and put it in everyone’s pocket, all the time," said Rosenfeld. He found that 39 percent of heterosexual couples met their significant other online, compared to 22 percent in 2009.

As people increasingly find connections online, their digital interactions can provide insight into people’s preferences in a partner.

For example, Neil Malhotra , the Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy, analyzed thousands of interactions from an online dating website and found that people seek partners from their own political party and with similar political interests and ideologies. Here is some of that research.

It turns out there might be some scientific proof to the claim that love is blind. According to one Stanford study , love can mask feelings of pain in a similar way to painkillers. Research by scientist Sean Mackey found intense love stimulates the same area of the brain that drugs target to reduce pain.

"When people are in this passionate, all-consuming phase of love, there are significant alterations in their mood that are impacting their experience of pain," said Mackey , chief of the Division of Pain Medicine. "We’re beginning to tease apart some of these reward systems in the brain and how they influence pain. These are very deep, old systems in our brain that involve dopamine - a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation."

While love can dull some experiences, it can also heighten other feelings such as sociability. Another Stanford study found that oxytocin, also known as the love hormone because of its association with nurturing behavior, can also make people more sociable. Here is some of that research.


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