Love and passion chemistry . Mixed media

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

     As any she belied with false compare.

—      Sonnet 130, by William Shakespeare

The first time I saw my wife (at a party where everyone but me was sewing butterfly wings for a parade), I felt very attracted to her. But, she was busy sewing, and despite the fact (or maybe, because of the fact) that I was longing for a girlfriend, I was too shy to strike up a conversation.

However, the first time I met my wife, (we were introduced by a mutual friend) I was not impressed. My wife has told me that I made an impression on her during our first meeting, and that it was not a good one.

I will spare us all the details of what she and I found unpleasant about each other's company. (I mean, we both know these details now, but you will not be privy to that information.) But I can report that something changed. 

In fact, after we started dating, we tried to take a break, because we both thought that seeing each other every day, was probably getting to be a bit too much of a good thing. After the first 24 hours apart, we missed each other so much that we gave up and went back to seeing each other every day.

We collaborated on an art project and grew closer. About two years after the whirlwind start, we were married on the banks of the West River, in Townshend, Vt.  We have been living together (mostly and increasingly happily) for the last 14 years or so.

In the English language, the word “love” has many meanings, and we are lucky enough to be experiencing all of them.  

This is a science, technology, engineering, art and math column. You might think that for Valentine's Day, I would be tempted to write a column on the biochemistry of love — what happens to a person's mind when a person falls in love, or how chemicals in our blood (such as dopamine, estrogen, testosterone and oxytocin) are related to lust, attraction, friendship and attachment. (And it is tempting to use my relationship with my beloved as a framework to explain these things.)

But Katherine Wu and many other writers have already written articles on the biology of love. Wu's piece is quite excellent, thorough and highly readable. Here is a link to it:

The clarity of Wu's writing is what makes it excellent. But one thing to be aware of is that it is possible to read this type of article and mistakenly come away with the feeling that all scientists are unanimously of the belief that love and consciousness can be fully explained by biochemistry.

In reality, there is a debate among scientists whether a purely material explanation can capture the fullness of what love is. Stephen Barr, a researcher in quantum physics and director of the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, explained what materialism is, and how it differs from science in his book, “The Believing Scientist.”

“Materialism regards itself as scientific, and indeed is often called ‘scientific materialism,’ even by its opponents, but it has no legitimate claim to be part of science. It is … a school of philosophy, one defined by the belief that nothing exists except matter, or, as Democritus put it, ‘atoms and the void.’ "

I am not attempting here to persuade anyone that Barr's spiritual understanding of the universe is correct, but rather that not all scientists feel that the study of biochemistry and neurology can ever fully explain consciousness and love. 

On the flip side, sometimes you come across a scientific article that causes you to feel more compassionate and loving toward strangers. For example, Dr.  Harry Bawkin's paper, "Loneliness in infants," published more than 70 years ago, documented that babies who are not touched and given loving attention fail to thrive and die, even if they are well-fed, and otherwise cared for.

More recently, scientists have been alerting us that adults also need to be touched. Men, especially, are at risk from complete lack of human touch, not because they need it more, but because a bunch of societal factors and training cause them to get so little of it.

Andrew Reiner wrote about this in a piece for the New York times, which you can read at Alex Williams, also writing in the Times, has documented the emergence of cuddling parties, and professional cuddlers. Here is an interview William's did with one such professional:

Valentine's Day can be hard for people who want to be in a romantic relationship but are not. Maybe, as a nation, we could benefit from being not just compassionate toward people we know who are lonely, but maybe we can reach out and literally touch them.

Hugs are a kinder, more powerful thing than we knew, and actions sometimes speak louder than words.