What is love? Stanford researchers and scholars examine matters of the heart

From the fields of science to sociology, politics and philosophy, here is what Stanford research says about love and romance, in the past and present day.  

For centuries, people have tried to understand the behaviors and beliefs associated with falling in love. What explains the wide range of emotions people experience? How have notions of romance evolved over time? As digital media becomes a permanent fixture in people’s lives, how have these technologies changed how people meet?

Examining some of these questions are Stanford scholars.

From the historians who traced today’s ideas of romance to ancient Greek philosophy and Arab lyric poetry, to the social scientists who have examined the consequences of finding love through an algorithm, to the scientists who study the love hormone oxytocin, here is what their research reveals about matters of the heart.

The evolution of romance

How romantic love is understood today has several historical origins, says Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature and a scholar of romance studies.

For example, the idea of finding one’s other half dates back to ancient Greek mythology, Harrison said. According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, humans were once complete, “sphere-like creatures” until the Greek gods cut them in half. Ever since, individuals have sought after their other half.

Here are some of those origin stories, as well as other historical perspectives on love and romance, including what courtship looked like in medieval Germany and in Victorian England, where humor and innuendo broke through the politics of the times.

Stanford scholar examines origins of romance

Professor of Italian literature Robert Pogue Harrison talks about the foundations of romantic love and chivalry in Western civilization.

Medieval songs reflect humor in amorous courtships

Through a new translation of medieval songs, Stanford German studies Professor Kathryn Starkey reveals an unconventional take on romance.  

The aesthetics of sexuality in Victorian novels

In Queen Victoria’s England, novelists lodged erotic innuendo in descriptive passages for characters to express sexual desire.

Getting to the ‘heart’ of the matter

Stanford Professor Haiyan Lee chronicles the Chinese “love revolution” through a study of cultural changes influenced by Western ideals.

Couple taking a selfie

Love in the digital age

Where do people find love today? According to recent research by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, meeting online is now the most popular way to meet a partner. 

“The rise of the smartphone took internet dating off the desktop and put it in everyone’s pocket, all the time,” said Rosenfeld. He found that 39 percent of heterosexual couples met their significant other online, compared to 22 percent in 2009. 

As people increasingly find connections online, their digital interactions can provide insight into people’s preferences in a partner. 

For example, Neil Malhotra, the Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy, analyzed thousands of interactions from an online dating website and found that people seek partners from their own political party and with similar political interests and ideologies. Here is some of that research. 

Online dating is the most popular way couples meet

Matchmaking is now done primarily by algorithms, according to new research from Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. His new study shows that most heterosexual couples today meet online.

Political polarization even extends to romance

New research reveals that political affiliation rivals education level as one of the most important factors in identifying a potential mate.

Turns out that opposites don’t attract after all

A study of “digital footprints” suggests that you’re probably drawn to personalities a lot like yours.

Stanford scholars examine the lies people tell on mobile dating apps

Lies to appear more interesting and dateable are the most common deception among mobile dating app users, a new Stanford study finds.

The science of love

It turns out there might be some scientific proof to the claim that love is blind. According to one Stanford study, love can mask feelings of pain in a similar way to painkillers. Research by scientist Sean Mackey found intense love stimulates the same area of the brain that drugs target to reduce pain. 

“When people are in this passionate, all-consuming phase of love, there are significant alterations in their mood that are impacting their experience of pain,” said Mackey, chief of the Division of Pain Medicine. “We’re beginning to tease apart some of these reward systems in the brain and how they influence pain. These are very deep, old systems in our brain that involve dopamine – a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation.”  

While love can dull some experiences, it can also heighten other feelings such as sociability. Another Stanford study found that oxytocin, also known as the love hormone because of its association with nurturing behavior, can also make people more sociable. Here is some of that research. 

Give your sweetheart mushrooms this Valentine’s Day, says Stanford scientist

A romantic evening of chocolate and wine would not be possible without an assist from fungi, says Stanford biology professor Kabir Peay. In fact, truffles might be the ultimate romantic gift, as they exude pheromones that can attract female mammals.

Love takes up where pain leaves off, brain study shows

Love-induced pain relief was associated with the activation of primitive brain structures that control rewarding experiences.

Study shows how ‘love hormone’ spurs sociability

Oxytocin, a substance involved in nurturing, sexual and pair-bonding behaviors, has also been implicated in overall sociability. A new Stanford study in mice describes the brain circuitry that’s involved.

Come together: How social support aids physical health

A growing body of research suggests that healthy relationships with spouses, peers and friends are vital for not just mental but also physical health.