I’m pretty sure that most of us pass through life completely misguided about what love can possibly be. Literature and dramaturgy have misled us into believing that love is a sort of blind, irresistible force of attraction between two individuals that, more often than not, leads to tragedy, disappointment and pain, with a few cases of “happily ever after…” A constellation o fantasies and biological drives are clustered together around this ideal of “true love”, rising expectations, triggering unconscious projections, wishful thinking and yearnings for a magical solution to our own problems, low self esteem and sense of loneliness – “if only we met our soul mate”.
Well, “irresistible attraction” has more to do with the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), a gene family that regulates the presentation of cellular antigens to T cells (so the immune system can verify if some alien organism has invaded those cells and start an immune response), than with some mysterious “irresistible” attraction. It is purely physical: the more diverse the genetic sequences of MHC between two individuals the greater the physical attraction, simply because our genes tend to promote genetic diversity in the next generation – a very neat strategy of survival of the species. The more diverse the MHC genes of the parents the more effective will be the immune system of the children. It is all about natural selection and species best chances of surviving and has nothing to do with “love”.
On the other hand, humans have highly social brains, another survival strategy that lies at the base of our need for relationship with other individuals inside our gradually expanding social group, in order to develop a healthy and well-structured brain throughout our childhood and adolescence. Children whose parents are caring and compassionate have a better chance to develop a well-equipped social brain than those whose parents are just “operational” (i.e. just good providers, materially speaking). Hugs and kisses, solidarity and active guidance (meaning boundaries) are proven to be essential ingredients for pituitary production of growth hormone and those other pituitary-dependant hormones involved in children’s healthy physical development and the structuring of a variety of neuronal systems in the brain. So we need a network of relationships during our developmental phase and the adulthood life as well to keep us functional and healthy. In this sense, we can say that love is essential for our species’ survival and that positive emotions are the glue of a healthy social community. Conversely, children growing in stressful contexts (social or family violence, negligence, abuse) tend to suffer deleterious adaptive changes in their developing brains that will program them to deal with cruelty and survive only in a violent world through violence itself. They usually present later in life the same disorders and psychiatric syndromes that affect war veterans and adults exposed to chronic stress and fear (depression, dysthymia, mood swings, panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, aggressiveness and so on).
Therefore, we can say that love and solidarity are good survival strategies developed by humans and other mammalian species, such as elephants, dolphins, whales and apes. In giving and receiving love, care and solidarity we find gratifying rewards in terms of brain chemistry (and reinforcement of healthy neuronal structures) whereas the opposite causes pain, stress, fear, existential terrors (and progressive neuronal cell death and metabolic disorders).
Another evolutionary perk of the social human brain is our ability to communicate with each other in many levels and through different sets of symbols. We communicate simultaneously in two levels, the verbal and the non-verbal, which are mutually complementary and together impart the whole meaning extracted from the interactions between two or more individuals. Moreover, we are able to communicate and interpret our perceptions of “reality” through different forms of symbolic language, such as science, philosophy, art and religion – such is our need to reach each other and establish common grounds for social interaction and to find the meaning of our existence. Sometimes I am left with the strong impression that, as individuals, we are a sort of loose bunch of neuron cells waiting for our turn to be included in some specific neuronal structure of a planetary brain which is still under embryonic development. Perhaps in such inclusion lies the meaning of life that so many of us are seeking for. Perhaps the gratifying sensation of being included in such neuronal planetary structures is what the mystics experience as the state of bliss or universal love – perhaps.
Now, on a one-to-one basis, what we are looking for? “What is this thing called ‘love’?” I do not really know. But I have experienced levels of affinity and deeper levels of communication with some people than those interactions exclusively controlled by the gene-diversity-oriented MHC. Sometimes, they came together (and it was great!), but more often than not, they have come in separate packages.
Who has best described those deeper levels of affinity and mutual communication for me was C. G. Jung. He once said in an interview that “Love is an invisible (and unbreakable, I must add) golden thread that links two hearts beyond space and time.” You read each other’s mind and soul effortlessly – no blurred perceptions there, no misery-exchange dynamics – just deep mutual understanding, appreciation and honest acceptance of what you both are (virtues and flaws included). Now, I’m convinced that when such Golden Threads happen without MHC playing an additional role, we find wonderful friends, true brothers and sisters of the soul (or psyche). And when MHC also plays a role, we may find one of the many possible loves of our lives. Yes, many. The Golden Thread plus MHC situation is not limited by or circumscribed to a single experience in life. If you are lucky enough, you may bump into more than one GT+MHC situation – hopefully not simultaneously (because it would be excruciatingly painful to choose) during the course of your life. The important and richest aspect of such experiences is that such Golden Threads (plus or minus MHC) transcend death, time and distance. You don’t stop loving those who have died or those that life has sent away from you. You will always love them and they will always love you. You are never alone (and I’m quite sure that there is no such thing as one-way-love – another misguided concept about love – if it’s one-way, it’s not love).
Perhaps Golden Threads (with and without MHC) are the stuff that holds the embryonic planetary brain together as it evolves and grows towards maturation. Perhaps we are just complex organelles of an embryo in development in the womb of a galaxy – perhaps.
Nevertheless, I am certain that we could do a lot better as a species if we only took into consideration in our daily relationships a simple Golden Rule: Do no harm, be as harmless as possible to others and give natural selection a better chance by being a caring, loving and more compassionate person towards both yourself and your neighbors, family and friends.