What is love?
Love. It's the theme of countless songs, poems, plays, movies; it's portrayed by everything from the amorous Aphrodite of Ancient Greek mythology to the latest Rom-Com doing the rounds of theatres and cinemas; and yet, despite being so utterly obsessed and infatuated by it, when asked simply to explain what love is, we invariably struggle.
What exactly happens to you when you meet that special someone? What's behind that racing heartbeat and fluttering stomach that can be triggered at the mere mention of your lover's name? What is the reason behind the serenity and warmth that we feel when we spend time in the arms of our other half? Science distinguishes two separate 'driving factors' of love: Sexual attraction and Attachment.
The sexual attraction part is best described as a rollercoaster of neuro-chemical activity: Testosterone, estrogen, nerve growth factor, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin all play their part in triggering various parts of the brain.
Chemicals like oxytocin and vasopressin are associated with the 'attachment' part, and studies into brain activity when someone is experiencing 'Love' have identified the foci in the media insula and the anterior cingulate cortex as being responsible for creating feelings of euphoria, heightened sensibility to smell, touch and cheesy one-liners.
In terms of biology, love also plays an important role. Ask an evolutionary psychologist what he or she thinks of love and perhaps they would suggest that love is simply a psychological state that coaxes us into devoting ourselves to another person, procreating, and creating a stable environment that is suitable for the relatively long parental-dependency period that human babies require in relation to other species.
In short, love can be seen as a useful evolutionary tool that keeps us reproducing and monogamous; the monogamy part being key, in that love encourages us to set up a home environment with a single partner and makes us less likely to encounter sexually transmitted infections that could jeopardize our fertility.
All you need is Love
Now that we've got the science out of the way, we can get down to serious business. There's a reason Valentines day is worth an average $14 billion to the US economy every year (figure courtesy of the National Retail Federation 2010). We simply cannot go without it!
From the first kiss, to the perfect wedding day (or civil partnership), through to growing old together; love is what makes our lives worth living. It's the reason we rush to school just to sit behind our crush in second period French, it's the reason we'd brave below-freezing temperatures to get a partner's favourite chocolate bar from the all-night petrol station at 3am. The way love can make you feel, all the troubles and worries the world has to throw at you pale into insignificance.
Just like that Beatles song says: 'All you need is love' and actually that's quite an accurate explanation, to share that feeling with another human being, to have that connection, to be constantly thinking of someone and know that they feel exactly the same way- what else could matter more than that?
You often hear people say love is an 'inexplicable feeling', perhaps it is just that. There are things so immense and powerful, that mere words will never be able to fully reflect, just like those old clichés: The perfect sunset, a baby's smile, a particularly terrifying rollercoaster ride, you'll never be able to understand it until you experience it, until you run the risk.
Lust or Love
The other big question is how do you know it's real? How do you know he or she is the one? The answer to that one is that you'll probably never know until you jump into it head first.
Arguably, all human relationships begin with that spark, that initial attraction, and often times physical appearance has a part to play in that, but beyond the thrills, lust and romance what makes that initial attraction blossom into a lifelong love story for some people, but end in hurt and disappointment for others?
Well, perhaps that is a part of what being in a relationship is about, it's an ongoing test. As much as it can be wonderful and awe-inspiring, there are going to be low-points, choppy waters and turbulence; how someone reacts to those times when life is less peachy can often be a good indicator of whether they are in it for the long haul. Does that mean you can't find true love without running the risk of heartbreak? Unfortunatley it probably does. Does it mean you shouldn't risk going out there and looking for love for fear of getting hurt? Maybe the best way to answer that is with the following quote:
~ Love is passion, obsession, someone you can't live without. If you don't start with that, what are you going to end up with? Fall head over heels. I say find someone you can love like crazy and who'll love you the same way back. And how do you find him? Forget your head and listen to your heart. I'm not hearing any heart. Run the risk, if you get hurt, you'll come back. Because, the truth is there is no sense living your life without this. To make the journey and not fall deeply in love - well, you haven't lived a life at all. You have to try. Because if you haven't tried, you haven't lived.~ William Parrish, from the film Meet Joe Black