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UM professor explains the science of love

University of Miami philosophy professor Berit Brogaard has written a book about romantic love, using philosophy, psychology and neuroscience to examine what many consider an irrational passion.
University of Miami philosophy professor Berit Brogaard has written a book about romantic love, using philosophy, psychology and neuroscience to examine what many consider an irrational passion. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Oh, to be in love. What can be better?

No wonder countless songs — and an entire day in February — pay tribute to romance. But there’s more science than magic in that euphoria. When we’re first in love, it’s a bit like being on crack. Brain chemicals give us an unbelievable lift. Dopamine provides a feeling of pleasure, serotonin boosts self-confidence, and norepinephrine pumps up our energy.

“Love is the kind of emotion that comes to mind first and foremost when people identify good emotions,” says Berit Brogaard, a University of Miami professor of philosophy who is also a neuroscientist.

Brogaard should know. She has written On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About A Complex Emotion ($21.95, Oxford University Press), a short book that looks at a fascinating subject in an unusual way. Using psychology, philosophy and neuroscience, Brogaard attempts rational explanations for what is surely one of humankind’s most irrational passions. She will be discussing her book at Books & Books on Friday.

Valentine’s Day, that annual over-the-top celebration, is the perfect example of our collective craving to connect with the other. We’re in love with love. So … light the candles. Bring on the chocolate. Pour out the wine. But let Brogaard provide much-needed perspective. “There are exceptions, of course, but Valentine’s is much more central to women,” she says matter-of-factly. “Anecdotally, I hear more men speaking negatively about Valentine’s, while women are more excited.”

The reason? Even as women achieve career success, they place more value on relationships. “We have this tendency for women to need validation from men.”

Still inexplicably elated? Consider this other bit of wing-clipping: Love is a choice. You can choose to start or end it. No matter the popular lore, Brogaard adds, love can be controlled.

“People sometimes want to think that they can’t control their emotions,” she says. “Well, no. You actually can.”

Keep that in mind when you’re suffering withdrawal from a partner who has raked your heart over the coals. “Even if love feels good, there are times you ought to move away because it can do some serious emotional damage.” What’s more, science proves we can take that first step if we are aware of why we feel the way we do.

Brogaard, the mother of a fifth-grader, is happily single. She intends to stay that way — not because of any horrible romantic experiences or an unhappy childhood — but because she enjoys being alone so much more. For Valentine’s, she has volunteered to babysit the children of colleagues.

“You can say I’m actively not seeking,” she quips.

Brogaard maintains a blog and a website, www.lovesicklove.com, in which she tries to explain “how brain chemistry intoxicates, hijacks your mind and sabotages your love life.”

The irony of a philosophy prof who uses neuroscience to explain one of life’s greatest and more complex emotions is not lost on Brogaard. Nevertheless, she believes empirical evidence can be quite helpful for the lovesick. Though she did not set out to write an advice book, certain anecdotes and studies prove useful enough for guidance.

Case in point: We all know the couple who, though miserable, have stuck it out for decades. Why? Blame our ancestors, Brogaard explains, citing studies by psychologist Robert Weiss. For survival, the ancients needed, and valued, attachments.

“Detachment is a greater enemy than mediocrity,” writes Brogaard, “because the part of the brain that underlies attachment is not wired for relationships that are not forever.”

A book on love may seem like a detour for a scientist who runs a perception lab at UM and is known for her work on synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulating one sense leads to an automatic experience with a second sense. In other words, a person with synesthesia sees a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet or tastes a flavor in response to sound. She is also an expert in savant syndrome, a rare condition in which people acquire special abilities after a brain injury.

But Brogaard has studied how personalities and emotional attachment styles change after a brain injury, too. Her team recently completed a series of studies on Jason Padgett, who acquired both savant syndrome and synesthesia after being severely hurt in a 2002 mugging. And growing up in Copenhagen, she also wrote three collections of poetry, a young adult novel and a children’s book about Charles Darwin, relatively unscientific endeavors.

In that context, putting love under the proverbial microscope might then be a natural progression after all. In a short autobiography on the Web, she admits she thought “it might be a good idea to add a little fun to the chemical analysis of compounds and sometimes tedious studies of neurotransmitters, pig livers and brain receptors” by adding linguistics and philosophy to her graduate studies.

The headings of On Romantic Love exemplify Brogaard’s curiosity and flexibility. Many are based on pop classics, such as Chapter 4, “Hopelessly Devoted to You: Irrational Love”; Chapter 7, “He’s Just Not That into You: And Other In-between Cases of Love”; and Chapter 9, “Un-Break My Heart: How to Fall Out of Love.”

Though she concludes that love is “an experience of a response of the body or mind to something or someone else” — nothing more, nothing less — she prods readers to “have some personal power over your own emotions.”

Even in this season of syrupy greeting cards, Brogaard wants to assure the public it’s OK to be alone on Valentine’s Day.

“I would like people to see there are alternatives to [romantic] relationships,” she says. “If you are in one, that can be great. But if you’re not in one, that can be great, too.”

If you go

What: Free reading and discussion of ‘On Romantic Love: Simple Truths About a Complex Emotion’ by Berit Brogaard.

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday.

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