The Study of Love: Drugs, Photographs & Philosophy

Zsolt Szentirmai, 10.April 2014


On Sunday 13th April The Class of Love will take place at SUPERMARKT, hosted by artist and academic Kate Hollett. In this second part of a two-part blogpost she discusses the theory, practice and personal story behind this event.

Love is a Drug

To look at the brain and the effects on the body when we are in love, Psychiatrist Hector Sebelly studied 33 people who were happily attracted to a significant other. All participants told Sebelly that they were feeling great. All were found to have high levels of the PEA (phenethylamine) metabolite in their brains and urine too. He concluded that people in love produced hormones that made them ‘feel’ good. (Fisher. 66). Dr. Lucy Brown and Dr. Fisher confirmed the results based on MRI scans, that high levels of hormones were present when seeing “image” of someone they loved.

In a group of experiments, Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor in the department of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues did MRI brain scans on college students who were in the throes of new love.
While being scanned, the students looked at a photo of their beloved. The scientists found that the caudate area of the brain – which is involved in cravings – became very active. Another area that lit up: the ventral tegmental, which produces dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation.

Dr. Brown said scientists believe that when you fall in love, the ventral tegmental floods the caudate with dopamine. The caudate then sends signals for more dopamine. “The more dopamine you get, the more of a high you feel,” Dr. Brown says. Or as her colleague, Dr. Helen Fisher put it: When you fall in love, “exactly the same system becomes active as when you take cocaine. You can feel intense elation when you’re in love. You can feel intense elation when you’re high on cocaine.” (Cohen, In both cases, regardless of the physical presence of a loved one or a picture, the same effect happened in the brain.

My “I Love You” project research reveals a connection to our emotions through the use of media – words and pictures. Seeing and hearing someone say “I Love You” “feels” good regardless of a physical connection suggesting a separation of mind and body in emotional connection. This is similar to findings by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (Grohol/Master et al.). In the past, data has proven that the mere presence of a loved one – a partner, family member or friend – can help reduce one’s subjective experience of physical pain (for instance, during a medical procedure), versus experiencing similar pain to a greater degree while alone. The researchers wondered whether this would have the same effect if it were only a picture of a loved one?

The results proved that seeing photographs of loved ones may prime associated mental representations of being loved and supported, which may be sufficient to attenuate pain experience. The findings suggest that bringing loved ones’ photographs to painful procedures may be beneficial particularly if those individuals cannot be there. (Grohol/Master). In fact, because loved ones vary in their ability to provide support, photographs may, in some cases, be more effective than in-person support. (Grohol)

Love is a powerful thing. It is felt in an image.


Caption: Family

“Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?” - Shakespeare

Love and Philosophy

How do we “think” about love?


Caption: 385 BC – Plato publishes the Symposium in which Phaedrus, Eryixmachus, Aristophanes and other Greek intellectuals argue that love between males is the highest form.

In philosophical, social and psychological terms, love is deconstructed into ways of loving. In an interview in the documentary entitled “Derrida” 2002 by Kirk Dirby and Amy Zierling Kofman, French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, talks about love in this way: “Is love the love of someone or of some thing?” “Do I love someone for the abso¬lute singularity of who they are? I love you because you are you. Or do I love you be-cause of your qualities, your beauty, your intelligence? Does one love someone or love something about someone? The difference between the who and the what are at the heart of love that separates the heart.” (“Derrida”). Derrida differentiates between unconditional love and conditions, by separating the concept of love into the abstract as in “qualities” and love in physical terms of an individual.

Slavic philosopher Slavoj Žižek believes love is unconditional and grounded in realistic belief of an absolute. In “Examined Life”, (Astra Taylor) He talks about our separation to our world in terms of ecology, if we truly love others, and ourselves we need to love our world in the same way. We know that we face insurmountable dangers, yet we are able to continue enjoying the very lifestyle that has created it.

We are separate, disconnected from the fact that we profit from disaster, pointing to oil as a natural resource that comes from the sledge of ‘dead life’. He suggests that we don’t need more connection to our natural world but that we need more alienation so that we may be motivated to work on ideas of survival from a more realistic place. He suggests finding poetry, spirituality from this new age of abstract dimension, accepting our disconnections; for example, loving substances like trash to show true love for the world.

“What is Love? Love is not idealisation… If you really love a woman or a man, then you don’t idealise him or her. Love is that you accept a person, for all its [their] failures, stupidities, and none the less, the person is absolute for you, everything that makes life worth living. You see perfection in imperfec¬tion itself, and that is how we should love the world.” (Žižek, “Examined Life”)

Both Derrida and Žižek point to a separation of matter. Who (the person or world) or what (ideas of love or characteristics) do we love? Žižek believes we need to embrace imperfection, yet with the Internet, choice has enabled the “what” of love to become more predominant. We can choose from literally millions of people to “connect” with, so qualities that we love can be found in many people not just one. We can find what we love theoretically bringing us to the question of “who do we love?”

Why limit it? We are learning to love outside of traditional ideas of partnership and possibly expanding the way we define love in the 21st century to include many in a shared global existence.

“Turn your love around” – George Benson

On Sunday 13th April The Class of Love will take place at SUPERMARKT. Hosted by artist and academic Kate Hollett, this workshop focuses on exploring love as it is projected and expressed in the arts, sciences and communication. For more info on the event and registration:

Main image: Happy Pills shop, Barcelona. Photo by Kate Hollett


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