Brain Pickings

Why We Love: 5 Books on the Psychology of Love

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What Oscar Wilde has to do with Hippocrates and the neurochemistry of romance.

It’s often said that every song, every poem, every novel, every painting ever created is in some way “about” love. What this really means is that love is a central theme, an underlying preoccupation, in humanity’s greatest works. But what exactly is love? How does its mechanism spur such poeticism, and how does it lodge itself in our minds, hearts and souls so completely, so stubbornly, as to permeate every aspect of the human imagination? Today, we turn to 5 essential books that are “about” love in a different way — they turn an inquisitive lens towards this grand phenomenon and try to understand where it comes from, how it works, and what it means for the human condition.

ESSAYS IN LOVE

No superlative is an exaggeration of Alain de Botton‘s humble brilliance spanning everything from philosophy to architecture. Essays in Love is precisely the kind of thoughtful, poetic, highly intelligent tome De Botton has grown famous for. Part novel, part philosophical inquiry into the origin and machinery of romantic love, the book follows the story of a love affair, tracing each stage — from the initial dopamine-driven lovesickness to the despair of love’s demise — through a beautiful blend of intellectual analysis and deeply human felt emotion. In De Botton’s classic style of networked knowledge, the narrative is sprinkled with references to and quotes from the major Western philosophers, yet equally reflective of his signature style of absorbing, highly readable narrative.

Every fall into love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping that we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves – all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise and brute stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one, and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through union with the beloved, hope somehow to maintain [against evidence of all self-knowledge] a precarious faith in the species.”

WHY WE LOVE

You might recall biological anthropologist Helen Fisher‘s work from this fascinating discussion of how antidepressants impact the experience of romantic love. That’s just one of a myriad equally fascinating facets of love Fisher dissects in Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love — a journey into the mind’s blend of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions. Fisher outlines the three key components of love, each involving different but connected brain systems — lust, driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification; attraction, characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, euphoria when things are going well and terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual; and attachment, commandeered by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin and associated with the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner — and brings a researcher’s lens to fundamental questions about passion and obsession, joy and jealousy, monogamy and divorce.

Sample her work with this fantastic TED talk on the brain in love:

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LOVE

Originally written in 1988, The Psychology of Love is an anthology of 16 academic, though highly readable, papers dissecting various aspects of love. The collection is divided into five parts, each focusing on a specific facet of understanding love, from global theories that explain the phenomenon, to the psychology of relationship maintenance, to a critical overview of the field of love research.

For many people, love is the most important thing in their lives. Without it, they feel as though their lives are incomplete. But what is “it”? This question has been addressed by poets, novelists, philosophers, theologians, and, of course, psychologists, among others. This book presents the attempts of contemporary psychologists whose field of expertise is the study of love and close relationships to figure out just what love is.”

The book is best-read in tandem with The New Psychology of Love, the 2008 follow-up to the original title — a priceless parallel that captures how scientific and technological innovation has improved and, in some cases, shifted our understanding of love’s psychological underbelly, and perhaps more importantly, the curious fact that nearly 25 years later, we still have no succinct and singular definition of “love.”

FALLING IN LOVE

Have you ever encountered a couple with disproportionately unequal attraction levels, only to find yourself thinking that the less-attractive person “must be really funny” or “is probably some sort of genius” or some other rational explanation of the seemingly mismatched pairing? In Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose, social psychologist and researcher Ayala Malach Pines tackles this and many other mysteries of the psychology of mate selection through a masterfully woven mesh of social and clinical approaches to understanding romance. The book extracts its key insights from three case studies: An interview-based study of 100 romantic relationships, a cross-cultural, data-driven juxtaposition of American and Israeli accounts of falling in love, and another interview series of 100 couples examining their reasons for falling in love in the context of turmoil later in the relationship.

Is love really blind? A large body of theory and research, as well as my own research and many years of clinical work, have convinced me that the answer to this question is a firm no!”

From whether proximity is the hidden matchmaker of true romance to how conscious choices increase the likelihood of finding “true love,” Falling in Love is deeply fascinating yet warmly written, devoid of the hollow ring of academic pontification without compromising the rigor of the research or the depth of its conclusions.

A GENERAL THEORY OF LOVE

Besides having a cover the epitome of design’s capacity for communicating powerful concepts with brilliant visual simplicity, A General Theory of Love by psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon is also a first-of-its-kind synthesis of research and poeticism, bringing a social science eye to the natural history of the grandest emotion.

Since the dawn of our species, human beings in every time and place have contended with an unruly emotional core that behaves in unpredicted and confusing ways. Science has been unable to help them. The Western world’s first physician, Hippocrates, proposed in 450 B.C. that emotions emanate from the brain. He was right — but for the next twenty-five hundred years, medicine could offer nothing further about the details of emotional life. Matters of the heart were matters only for the arts — literature, song, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance. Until now.”

Eloquent and eye-opening, A General Theory of Love illuminates “hard science” findings across brain function and neurochemistry though a humanistic prism that offers a richer, deeper understanding of the heart’s will.

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The Ancient Book of Myth and War

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What Roman warriors have to do with Pixar and medieval Middle-Eastern legends.

Nearly two years ago, we featured The Ancient Book of Séx and Science — the racy and whimsical side-project of four Pixar animators, which went on to become the most popular book in Brain Pickings history. But it was actually a follow-up to an earlier project by the same team, at the time out-of-print and near-impossible to get online, less a few exorbitantly priced four-figure collector’s copies. Now, The Ancient Book of Myth and War has magically reappeared on Amazon, where we were able to snag a copy for under $75. Needless to say, the book is an absolute gem worth every penny — a collection of stunning experiments in shape and color exploring the strange and wonderful world of mythology and legend throughout the history of the world. (As Amazon reviewer J. Brodsky eloquently puts it, “The only point to be made here, is that you simply must do yourself a favor and buy this art gallery they call a book.”)

The four animators — Scott Morse, Nate Wragg, Lou Romano, and Don Shank — manage to capture the essence of legends from around the world and across time with a rare blend of irreverence and cross-cultural curiosity, sweeping you into a journey into the soul of heroic mythology.

Playful and poetic, The Ancient Book of Myth and War is an absolute treat for art aficionados and mythology lovers alike, blending history and design with the kind of visual eloquence Pixar has grown legendary for.

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Jonathan Harris: The Storytelling of Life

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We love artist Jonathan Harris, who previously delighted us with the We Feel Fine project, World Building in a Crazy World, I Want You To Want Me, and The Whale Hunt. When he turned 30, he decided to start taking one photo every day and posting it to his site before going to sleep — a seemingly simple, private project that soon turned into a fascinating exploration followed by thousands of people around the world. Our friends from m ss ng p eces — you remember them, right? — are back with another lovely documentary, capturing the project and the vivid, earnest curiosity with which Harris approaches the world.

I wanted to find a way to be more in the moment, to be more in every day; to understand time more and to understand my life more, to have more memories — all of these things. Basically, to live more richly, as a human life, not just as a work life.” ~ Jonathan Harris

No matter what you do in your life, what you create, what career you have, whether you have a family or kids, or make a lot of money… your greatest creation is always going to be your life’s story. Because it’s like this container that holds all of those other things. That was something I was really interested in with this project, thinking about life itself as a creation, as a story that you’re writing.” ~ Jonathan Harris

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5 (More) Children’s Books for Grown-Ups

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What escaping boredom has to do with altruism theory and the Egyptian revolution.

Last year, we featured five of our favorite children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups, which became one of our most-shared and -discussed pieces of all time. Today, based on reader suggestions, we’re back with five more.

THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO

Between 1881 and 1883, Italian author Carlo Lorenzini, who eventually became known as Carlo Collodi, wrote a short tale that went on to become a household name and one of the world’s greatest children’s classics. The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le Avventure Di Pinocchio) is the story of a woodcarver named Geppetto in a small Italian village and the wooden puppet he created, who dreams of becoming a real boy and whose nose magically grows every time he tells a lie to construct his own reality. Full of archetypal patterns, Pinocchio captures complex themes of conscience, heroism, peer pressure, patriotism and the search for identity in a beautifully simple narrative. We recommend this particular bilingual edition by Biblioteca Italiana, featuring the complete text in Italian and English, with the original black-and-white illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti.

Fancy the happiness of Pinocchio on finding himself free! Without saying yes or no, he fled from the city and set out on the road that was to take him back to the house of the lovely Fairy.”

Pinocchio is also about the tender underbelly of Italian culture and national character, brimming with sociocultural innuendo. As Giuseppe Prezzolini famously remarked in 1923, “Pinocchio is the testing ground for foreigners; whoever understands the beauty of Pinocchio, understands Italy.”

Thanks, Phil

MATILDA

Originally published in 1988 and illustrated by Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl‘s Matilda is often seen as a formative foundation for the millennial generation. With its story of an extraordinary child whose ordinary and disagreeable parents dismiss their daughter’s prodigious talent, its central theme echoes millennials’ self-perceived status as a misunderstood social actors with underappreciated talent. More importantly, however, the theme of violence and the abuse of authority — a recurring theme is Dahl’s novels — is a particularly timely one in the sociocultural context of today’s political unrest around the world, from the Middle Eastern revolutions to civic protests across Europe.

“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Thanks, Toby

THE GIVING TREE

Beautifully written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein in 1964, The Giving Tree is one of the most beloved yet controversial children’s books of all time. The duality of its interpretations — one seeing it as the poetic story of unconditional love between a boy and his tree, and the other as the darkly faithless portrait of a selfish boy who keeps on taking from a tree that keeps on giving — illustrates some of the longest-running debates of moral philosophy: Is there such a thing as true altruism, and are human beings innately kind and selfless or innately unscrupulous and selfish? (We choose to side — and live — with the former.)

But I have nothing left to give you. My apples are gone.’ ‘My teeth are too weak for apples,’ said the boy. ‘My branches are gone,’ said the tree. ‘You cannot swing on them.’ ‘I am too old to swing on branches,’ said the boy. ‘My trunk is gone,’ said the tree. ‘You cannot climb.’ ‘I am too tired to climb,’ said the boy. ‘I am sorry,’ sighed the tree. ‘I wish that I could give you something, but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump.’ ‘I don’t need very much now,’ said the boy. ‘just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.’ ‘Well,’ said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could, ‘well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.’ And the boy did. And the tree was happy.”

The book is also available in an original Hebrew edition, also with Silverstein’s lovely original illustration.

Thanks, Alyssa

AN AWESOME BOOK OF THANKS!

LA-based artist and writer Dallas Clayton‘s An Awesome Book of Thanks!, a follow-up to his 2008 gem An Awesome Book!, was one of our best children’s books of 2010. It’s also timeless in both its message and the visual whimsy of its execution. A lovely homage to the art of gratitude, it’s written in a style that would make a Dr. Seuss lover swoon and illustrated with the kind of colorful whimsy that tickles your eternal inner kid awake. In a culture brimming with cynicism and entitlement, this is an absolutely delightful reminder to savor the amazing world we live in and, above all, the blessing of each other’s presence.

and thanks for the trees
and thanks for the trains
and for the breeze and for the rain
and thank you thank you ocean deep
and desert dry
and mountain steep
and balls to kick and kites to fly
and places to go when you want to cry

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

When Norton Juster wrote The Phantom Tollbooth in 1961, it was declared an instant classic and went on to be translated in multiple languages and compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It tells the story of a bored little boy who one day receives a magic tollbooth that transports him to a fantasy land called The Kingdom of Wisdom. Though at first he gets lost in the Doldrums, a grey place where thinking and laughing are not allowed, he goes on to incredible adventures before returning to his own room as magically as he had left it. But when he tries to revisit the Kingdom of Wisdom, he finds the magic tollbooth gone and in its place a note that reads, “For Milo, who knows the way.”

Besides the central theme of escaping boredom and intellectual stagnation through the pursuit of one’s own curiosity — a key founding philosophy here at Brain Pickings — the book is also about the importance of education, something we’ve grown increasingly concerned with and inspired by.

What you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

Thanks, Jeremy

Missed the first part? Catch right on up.

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