Do we understand love?
That was the question posed to two professors of medicine this weekend at Wonderfest, a San Francisco Bay Area science festival and host of several scientific talks. Their answer: Yes and No.
What scientists do know is that love and relationships regulate human physiology, according to Thomas Lewis, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco and author of "A General Theory of Love." For example, in a medical study of stockbrokers who suffered from hypertension, those patients who were given a puppy vs. drug treatments showed lower blood pressure over time, according to the Journal Hypertension. In a similar study of people with allergies, subjects who kissed for 30 minutes after exposure to an allergen resisted a breakout over those who did not, according to Lewis.
Familial nurturing can also have lasting effects on the brain, Lewis said. In a study of rats, published in Brain Research, 2004, the rodent that was nurtured early in life survived a later stroke. The rats that were neglected died.
"Relationships regulate brain function," said Lewis.
That link might be explained by the evolution of the mammalian brain hundreds of millions of years ago, when the species branched off from the predominant reptiles. Unlike reptiles, mammals have a so-called limbic brain that underlies their reproductive strategy to nurture and protect the young, Lewis explained. (In contrast, there wasn't a whole lot of love on Earth when reptiles reigned.) As humans evolved, the brain expanded to include the neocortex, which delivered, among other things, a higher consciousness, and spoken and written languages into human life.
Still, the neocortex is a source of mystery when it comes to love, with the potential to help explain various types of emotion like romantic or spiritual love. And scientists have yet to explain those links. That's why, said David Watts, clinical professor of medicine at UCSF, "love can't be fully understood."
"There are various kinds of knowledge: scientific, emotional and spiritual. And the techniques for discovery in each field are different. Neither will completely explain love," said Watts, who likes to explain love through poetry.
Instead of shedding more light on the subject of love, the professors may have raised more questions, at least among some of the audience members. For example, one man asked from his wife's point of view: "Is the dog better or am I?"
The audience burst out in laugher. But Lewis answered that he didn't know of any studies that compared dogs to humans as a remedy for high blood pressure. But, he said, "We should all strive to be at least as good as the dog."