By Dr Sam Illingworth

15 November 2016 - 09:10

The word 'love' written in wet sand, with a heart shaped stone for the letter 'o'.
'A study categorised love as made up of three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment.' Photo ©

Dustin Gaffke, licensed under CC BY 2.0, and adapted from the original.

When it comes to understanding love, who gets it right - science, or Shakespeare? Scientist and poet, Dr Sam Illingworth, compares the two.

Can science make you feel 'gooey inside'?

I was recently involved in a science communication event that aimed to see whether science could make you fall in love. During the event, couples were asked to discuss their responses to 36 questions, all of which were designed to increase intimacy, the idea being that mutual vulnerability encourages closeness. The questions were based on a study by Dr Aron (and others) from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook, which was originally published in the Personality and Social Psychology Journal. The study aimed to create intimacy via self-disclosure and relationship-building activities. Questions included: what would constitute a 'perfect' day for you? What is your most terrible memory?

Accompanying these questions was an aphrodisiac-themed three-course meal and a series of ‘romantic interventions’, similar to the relationship-building activities in Dr Aron’s study. These interventions included bespoke poetry written about a favourite shared memory of the couple, and an intimate discussion with experts about the occasional dark side of love. All of them were designed to stimulate the couples and encourage them to talk about intimacy, both generally and between themselves.

At the beginning of the evening, the couples were asked to indicate on a scale of one to 13 (without revealing their scores to their partners) how close they felt to each other. At the end of the evening, they were asked to score this intimacy again. Over the course of the three hours, the average scores of the couples moved from a lukewarm eight to a red-hot 12. Although these ‘results’ might not stand up to any real scientific scrutiny, it certainly left me feeling all gooey inside.

Science struggles to measure intimacy 

However, science faces a number of hurdles when it comes to measuring intimacy objectively. In The Science of Intimate Relationships, Garth Fletcher and his co-authors propose that taking a scientific approach to analysing intimacy requires researchers to distance themselves from their own personal experiences of intimacy and loneliness. But they also acknowledge that doing so can be extremely difficult, as these feelings are so prevalent throughout society.

How to analyse the process of falling in love

If intimacy is hard to pin down, then what can science tell us about the process of falling in love? A 1996 study by Helen Fisher at New York City University categorised love as made up of three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment, all of which are characterised by distinct cravings. Lust is characterised by a craving for sexual gratification; attraction is characterised by a craving for an emotional attachment with a potential partner; and attachment is characterised by a craving for maintaining this close, personal contact.

However, it is important to realise that these cravings do not exist in isolation. To some extent, they are determined by our interactions with more than one person. With regard to lust, a 2016 study by Jessica Taubert and others at the University of Sydney found that, when swiping through profiles on online dating sites, we are more likely to find a face attractive if the preceding face was also attractive. These findings suggest that perceived attractiveness is determined not only by a person’s own attractiveness, but also by the attractiveness of their surroundings and friends.

So science can tell us something about the process of falling in love. But how should we make sense of our feelings while in love? It is at this point that Shakespeare steps up to the plate.

Shakespeare gives us a way to talk about romantic feelings

The English language is inundated with words, quips and phrases from the Bard’s works. However, perhaps the greatest contribution he has made to our lexicon involves the way in which he speaks about love. There are passages in his plays containing sentiments that are now so overused they feel clichéd, including the following extract from a speech by Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she says that Demetrius should love her for who she is, rather than loving Hermia purely for her great beauty:

'Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.'

The concept of ‘love being blind’ can have two meanings: that which is meant by Helena (i.e., that love should transcend pure physical attraction), and also the notion that being in love can cause us to do stupid things. Many of us will have used this phrase when talking about our own love life, or that of our nearest and dearest. And while I am sure the concept existed before Shakespeare put pen to paper, part of his genius lay in vocalising thoughts and opinions in a way that was just beyond the reach of others.

There's a Shakespearean scenario for every amorous situation

It is not just Shakespeare's language that can help us to make sense of our romantic feelings. Many of his characters' situations can help us better identify what it means to be in love. Granted, some of these scenarios might be a little ‘dramatic’ in comparison to our own affairs. But even among the most extreme scenarios, there are glimpses to be had and lessons to be learned.

Reading what Shakespeare had to say on the subject, and watching his words come to life on the stage or on the screen, can help us understand what is going on in our own lives. Take unrequited love, which Shakespeare handles beautifully in Duke Orsino’s famous monologue from Twelfth Night:

'If music be the food of love play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.'

Duke Orsino is infatuated with Olivia, but she does not feel the same way about him. The Duke is saying that if music feeds love in the same way that food feeds the body, then he wants more of it, so that he will become disgusted by it, and thereby free from his desire for Olivia. This can be thought of as being analogous to the fact that you would probably never want to eat your favourite food again if you were forced to eat several platefuls of it in one sitting.

Shakespeare can help us to make sense of what, at times, feels like a completely alien and uncharted world. It helps to know that people have gone there before and have failed miserably, often in such spectacular fashion that it makes our own romantic car-crashes feel more like bumps in the road.

Science and Shakespeare can each give us insights into love

Neither science nor Shakespeare alone can fully describe love, intimacy, loss or heartache. But they do offer useful insights into what it means to be in love, and why we have these feelings. Both science and Shakespeare identify that love is a shared experience, which is often influenced by people and factors beyond the lovebirds in question.

Dr Sam Illingworth is a senior lecturer in science communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK.

Dr Sam Illingworth will be presenting in Ireland at events celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary on 18 and 19 November. You can read more about his research, and some of his poetry on his website.

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