This moving book sees neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo explore the effect on her cognitive functioning when she fell in love with a fellow scientist
13 April 2022
It was 2011. Stephanie was 36, and publishing papers on pair-bonding and romantic love, despite having never known it herself. “I assumed I would never experience romance outside the laboratory,” she writes. John was an expert on the dangers of loneliness to physical and mental well-being, and, at 60, was twice divorced, “not lonely, but by myself”, he said.
Both were self-avowed workaholics until they found love, and almost at first sight. “And once I did, my life and my research were changed forever,” writes Stephanie (who took her husband’s name). Now, in Wired for Love, Cacioppo moves away from case studies and turns her scientific attention onto her marriage. Her book is “both the story of my science, and the science behind my story”.
As a tale of romance, it is epic, culminating in a spur-of-the-moment wedding in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and a profile in the popular Modern Love column in The New York Times. But what takes the Cacioppos’ story beyond a heart-warming reminder to never lose hope are their professional insights into our brains in love.
Through their courtship and marriage, Stephanie and John studied themselves, observing and noting “the intention, the subtext underlying every step we took as a fledgling couple” and its effect on cognitive functioning.
In Wired for Love, Cacioppo explores their findings with critical distance. What was behind their instant attraction? How could they feel so close when they were often oceans apart? Would they have fallen in love if they hadn’t found each other physically attractive? What part did their expectations play? And for two people who thought themselves in love with their work, how did the real thing compare?
Cacioppo, a psychiatrist and behavioural neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, enlarges her experience with studies (her own, and others) for the sake of non-scientific readers who may be seeking to understand and perhaps cultivate romantic connection themselves. The appetite for these scientific insights into our personal lives is evident in popular non-fiction such the recent Heartbreak: A personal and scientific journey by journalist Florence Williams. And it is even shown by the bashful requests by Cacioppo’s students to use her “love machine”, a patented computer test that aims to reveal their unconscious preferences of partner from their brain activity.
Yet Cacioppo – who became the first female president of the Society for Social Neuroscience – describes struggling to be taken seriously early in her research of romantic love, with most neuroscientists devoting themselves to the darker side of the emotional spectrum.
In the early 2000s, a male faculty adviser told her that to study love would be “career suicide”, that the subject was too lightweight to be the basis for academic research. She was first able to overcome that bias by substituting the word “love”, in a grant proposal, for “pair-bonding”.
And by studying the brain in love, we can see it as a complex and hardwired neurobiological phenomenon, suggesting to Cacioppo that “love is not merely a feeling but also a way of thinking”.
Her early career experience speaks to the snobbery and sexism at play in what is deemed worthy of study, as well as how much we don’t know about what might be considered a universal experience and an essential need.
As covid-19 laid bare, writes Cacioppo, “the need for love might be less immediate than the need to avoid danger, but it is by no means a luxury”. Indeed, John’s death from cancer in 2018 shows love’s potential to both devastate and endure. Cacioppo confronts her loss boldly, concluding that “love is a much more expansive concept than we give it credit for”, not all of which can, or should, be explained by chemistry.
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