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10 Things to Love About Love

A heart-shaped knotted string on a branch | Will O / Unsplash
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As part of UCLA’s centennial celebration, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture is holding a series of conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening for ten weeks, experts from diverse disciplines are exploring answers to some of life’s biggest questions, including “What Is Creativity?,” “What Is Citizenship?,” and coming up next week “What Is Nature?” The discussions, held at Kaufman Hall on UCLA’s campus, are open to community members, free with RSVP. Can’t attend? We’ll be sharing weekly highlights.

On October 29, a team of experts took on the toughest question yet: What is Love? Victoria Marks, professor of choreography and associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of Art and Architecture, introduced Thomas Bradbury, co-director of the UCLA Marriage Lab; Massimo Ciavolella, professor of Italian; Meryl Friedman, director of education and special initiatives for the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA; David Roussève, choreographer, writer, director and performer. They each gave a short presentation, participated in a discussion and answered questions from the audience. Here are ten things we found out about love.

1. Love has been confusing people for a long time. Massimo Ciavolella talked about understandings of love at different times in history. He said, in the 1700s, “The brain was considered to be a kind of wax. And as you know, when you warm wax, you can put something there — a scene, for example — and as it gets colder, the image remains there, impressed.” Back then, people believed obsession meant you had an image stuck in your head. He told a story about someone trying to help an obsessed man by putting a bronze bed-warming device on his head. They were trying to melt the image that was stuck in his brain so that he could move on, but instead, badly burned him.

Wax model of a human brain, early19th century | Photo: Wellcome Image (CC BY 4.0)
Wax model of a human brain | Photo: Wellcome Image (CC BY 4.0)

2. Love is a deeply personal experience, but that doesn’t mean scientists can’t study it. Thomas Bradbury said, “We study invisible natural forces all the time — when we study things like gravity, which we can't see, but has an effect; when we study things like the wind, which we can't see, but has an effect; and we can do the same thing with love. We can say love is that which love causes. Love is its consequences.”

One of the things scientists have learned: Love is good for us. Bradbury said, “The presence of love is the best predictor of our happiness in our lives. People who report having loving relationships, close confiding relationships, are people who enjoy better physical health, better mental health, who are more successful at school. They're more successful at work. They go on to raise happier and healthier children of their own.”

3. Dr. Bradbury said psychological scientists have found that there are several key ingredients that generate love:

4. Songwriters have a whole lot to say about love. Meryl Friedman started her talk by asking, “What is love?” and sharing some of the ways songwriters have explained it over the years. “Love can break your heart. It's the look. It's the crazy little thing. It's a silly little song. It will take you higher. It's like a rock. It will keep us together. It's a two-way street. It's tainted. It hurts. You can't hurry it. It's a train. It falls. It's falling. It's a fool. It's fooling you. It's endless. It ain't for keepin’. It's a whole lotta. It's the one. It's a touchin’ and a squeezin’. It feels like making some. It just calls to say. It's all you need.”

5. Everybody defines love differently. As they arrived, audience members were handed slips of paper with the words, “Love is” and asked to complete the sentence. After Friedman spoke about her deep love for the theater, teaching, and making art, she read the audience’s slips aloud. A partial list: “That's butterfly feeling. Faith, logic, peace, trust, acceptance, friends, family, clarity, humility, loyalty, justice, helping others, water, food, Disneyland, ice cream, bananas, apples, and grapes. Love is a neurochemical con job. Love is a universe all of its own. Love is oneness. Love is emptiness. Love is an action. Love is blind, irrational, painful, insane, necessary, healing.” 

6. David Roussève read a piece in which he shared some of his own experiences with love, including being ready to die of AIDS-related complications in 2004, until his then-husband walked into his hospital room and he remembered he had a reason to live. He concluded. “It is the belief in love that is the reason to live — love of self, love of freedom, love of another, love of a doodoo bug, love of a mangy-ass yellow-tailed dog. What is love? Love is the reason to live.”

7. An audience member brought up the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Bradbury responded by saying, “Our capacity to love other people doesn't stop at our front door, right? It can't stop there. It shouldn't stop there. And we have this capacity, and that is a gift. That is a remarkable thing that exists within us. And we make choices about how much we share that, how much that becomes part of the public discourse, how much that becomes part of the tone of our daily lives. So whether that's a student you might meet in office hours, or someone you might meet on the street who's a stranger who might be in distress in some way. It's these small acts that I think create, through love, this more just society that allows a lot of people to have a voice and a lot of people to feel better about themselves, because justice serves the vulnerable.”

8. The idea of dying of a broken heart has been around a long time. Professor Ciavolella recalled an ancient story about a man who is rejected by the woman he loves. Distraught, the man crawls in next to her while she is sleeping, and holds his breath until he dies. Ciavolella said, “The culture of the western world is full of stories about people who've died of a broken heart. And when surgery began, around the 1500s, people like Vesalius and others, some of the surgeons, went around looking to see whether in fact there were broken hearts and to see if people could have died because of it.”

9. Breakups are a really big deal. Bradbury said, “It's dramatic to say that people can die of a broken heart, but I think it's a testimony to how we as evolved creatures demand and need other people in our lives to take care of us. And when that's abruptly taken from us, our body responds in abrupt ways.” He said that while some people adapt well to these difficult moments, we’re deeply interdependent, and our bodies are tuned into that.

10. Is it true that you can’t love someone else unless you love yourself first? Bradbury responded to an audience question about that by saying, “Love is best understood over time and developmentally. So to talk about the status of how you love yourself at one point in time relative to how much you might love another person, that takes a very tiny slice of time, and it underestimates the two trajectories that the two people might be on and their ability to influence one another. So I do think that someone who maybe by virtue of their background or the way that they were raised doesn't have a complete capacity to appreciate who they are and what they're about, but through their interactions with another person, which can be very loving, they can come to experience that other person's love themselves. So I would say, yes, we can love another person without fully loving ourselves, but ultimately it's a developmental process.”

Top Image: A heart-shaped knotted string on a branch | Will O / Unsplash

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