Skip to main content

A New Scientific Definition of Love: Not Everlasting, but Sporadic Moments of Connection

  • Author:
  • Updated:
Screen shot 2013-01-29 at 12.56.35 PM

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has an extremely interesting take on the meaning of love after studying people's biochemical and physiological reactions to intense interactions. From the Atlantic:

Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.

Rather, it is what she calls a "micro-moment of positivity resonance." She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store.

In the fascinating experiment, Fredrickson had people wired up while listening to a very lively story and her team discovered some extraordinary data - that during moments of connection, people's brain patterns literally mirrored that of the story teller in perfect synchronicity. And it went further:

In some rare cases, if the listener was particularly tuned in to the story—if he was hanging on to every word of the story and really got it—his brain activity actually anticipated the story-teller's in some cortical areas.

The mutual understanding and shared emotions, especially in that third category of listener, generated a micro-moment of love, which "is a single act, performed by two brains," as Fredrickson writes in her book.

The science has some interesting implications about the meaning of 'love', particularly from a philosophical point of view. As Fredrickson says:

"I love the idea that it lowers the bar of love. If you don't have a Valentine, that doesn't mean that you don't have love. It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status."

It certainly makes sense that love can be defined as a moment of connection with someone else, but I still think it doesn't encompass a broader definition of the most powerful of human emotion. It seems to me that you can still love someone without feeling a an exact connection with them. There are most likely members of your family you don't always see eye to eye with, but you love them nevertheless. And while you have moments of extreme synchronicity with romantic partners, you can still love them when you don't.

Regardless, Fredrickson's study of intense connection certainly helps understand an aspect of love better - that extraordinary feeling we have when we completely 'get' our fellow human beings.