Love isn’t just fodder for poets. For as long as people have been falling for each other, scientists have worked hard to locate the roots of love somewhere in the body. The ancient Greeks and medieval men of medicine believed that imbalances in bodily fluids like phlegm and blood were responsible for that weak-kneed, goofy-smiled condition of longing, but as early as the 1660s researchers had begun to grasp at the brain’s role in romantic love. Modern-day scientists know a lot more about how the emotion works — it involves the brain’s reward centers and pleasure chemicals like dopamine — but it’s still up for debate whether science or poetry describes it better.
Galen believed that love was the result of all four fluids mixing together at once. Based on observed symptoms like sleeplessness, quickened pulse and moodiness, Galen saw love as an affliction. The view that observable love was a medical illness remained until the 1600s, when the Hippocratic principle of humors also fell out of favor.
Thomas Willis, the father of modern neurology and the leader of a group of doctors, chemists and philosophers known as the Oxford Circle, was the first to suggest that the brain was responsible for many of the emotional and reactive human behaviors. His 1667 encyclopedia of diseases of the brain included “love sickness” as a neurological reaction to falling in love. Love, he believed, was the result of certain chemicals “dancing” along the nerves. In this way, he introduced the idea that emotional and mental phenomena could be the result of physiological occurrence
According to Dr. Frank Tallis, author of Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness, the study of love fell out of favor in the 1800s, replaced by a scientific fascination with sex. Consider Dr. Sigmund Freud’s The Art of Loving, in which the doctor attributed all romantic love to the “suppression, repression or frustration of sexual desire.”
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