The Intensity of Love

Ruth Feldman, ‘The Neurobiology of Human Attachments’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017) 80-99.

This is about measuring the intensity of love. One for the poets, you’d think. And Feldman thinks so too. She wants there to be a dialogue between ‘science and humanities, arts and clinical wisdom’, as we try to understand love, or its more technical cousin, attachment. She starts with this quotation from Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘Harmonium’:

      The measure of the intensity of love
      Is measure, also, of the verve of earth.
      For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
      Ticks tediously the time of one more year.
      And you? Remember how the crickets came
      Out of their mother grass, like little kin,
      In the pale nights, when your first imagery
      Found inklings of your bond to all that dust.

Stevens seems to think that if we want to measure feelings we need to think about how we tune into the rhythms of the world around us. Perhaps the environment quickens around lovers, or reveals itself to them. More straightforwardly, perhaps we know we’re in love when the grass is greener, or the butterflies more buttery. I have a strangely specific, intense, and happy memory of the first (and I think only) time I saw the film of A Room with a View: Denholm Elliott telling Helena Bonham-Carter, with his hand on his heart: ‘here is where the birds sing, here is where the sky is blue’.
      Feldman acknowledges a long history of ‘depicting’ the intensity of love: ‘cave paintings, clay figures, story-telling, dance, music, and poetry’. More recently, ‘studies in animal models, particularly rats and monogamous prairie voles, began to uncover the cellular, neural, and endocrine mechanisms implicated in maternal care and pair bonding’. Now, I have this need to maintain that to depict in art is to uncover, and to uncover in experiments on prairie voles is to depict; we’re all friends here. These animal studies are flourishing, she says, into ‘a new field of inquiry – the neurobiology of human attachments’.
      Some key concepts emerging in this field: how the growth of the infant brain is ‘situated’ and ‘dialogical’, playing out in close proximity to mothers; how the plasticity of the brain enables repair of ‘early negative relationships by later benevolent ones’; how ‘human synchrony’ is vital, and in mother-infant contact we see ‘gaze, affect, vocal, and touch modalities’ and ‘physiological coordination’, and all of this is a kind of ‘entrainment’, as the child learns how to live with others (and at all).
      The last of these seems very important and interesting in an interdisciplinary sort of way. It seems humans do ‘bio-behavioural synchrony’ with strangers, in the right circumstances, which suggests a remarkable reliance on and/or capacity for the maintenance of many different levels of attachment. Perhaps we can get in to synchrony with a poet or a poem. Perhaps some sort of rhythmic transfer might put us into the right frame of mind to catch something of ‘the intensity of love… the verve of earth’.
      The most famous possible example of this I can think of is the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, when they spontaneously produce, in their rapt exchanges of words, a sonnet. Another example could be John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’, in which the speaker, in a series of closely woven stanzas, presents a vision of harmonious intimacy of body and soul. It’s a witty poem, though, and an elusive one, so it’s not just the thing itself, ready to be measured.


Feldman is proposing a scientific model of ‘the quality of attachment’ in humans. It’s about dopamine, the inhibition of inhibitory neurons, the reward circuit, higher order processes, expectation and representations, mentalizing, top-down inferences, these and other things feeding into the ‘global human attachment network’. This idea of inhibiting inhibitions is eye-catching. It models a cognitive process in a certain way that resonates with the ways one might think sociologically or morally or indeed in terms of literary responses and effects.
      There are three concluding ideas which assuage those who might think that understanding love was not a substantial enough goal. First, it has health benefits. Second, we need to understand it as a way to seeing its flip-side, conflict, out-groups, etc. Thirdly, in order to do this well, Feldman things that we need to work properly ‘at the crossroad between science and humanities’. The ‘biologically based evolutionary perspective, which provides mechanistic understanding but pays little attention to the individual, is supplemented by perspectives that focus precisely on the individual with his or her experiences, expressions, and aspirations, and are committed to the individual’s well-being, health, and thriving’.
      I have nothing against the individual. Indeed, some of my very favourite people are individuals. The scientific research is very single-person-based in some ways, focused in on, at most, intimate pairs; but I see that the individual is not fully realized in that form. I’m just still stuck on ‘the verve of earth’. Perhaps the hardest thing to pin down in the lab is the way that love changes everything: our disposition towards the world and the world’s disposition towards us. Someone might object that this isn’t about what love is, just what it feels like. To which I can only say at this point: there’s no need for that word ‘just’, since in this case the difference between the thing and what a thing feels like needs to shrink.
      Some novels and poems and indeed songs may be telling us things about love and earthly verve. There’s a good one below, slight in some ways, but special: this is my favourite version of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ that I found on Youtube in a dedicated search, but the Stan Getz quartet version runs it so close.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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