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Poets Online Archive

Science and Love

August 2018

We don't normally associate love with science. Long ago, it was thought that love was centered in the heart, and that misconception still holds a place in our culture - just take a look around you when Valentine's day approaches. Later, we found that the emotions of love were centered in the brain and involved chemical reactions in our bodies.

In Sara Eliza Johnson's poem, "Combustion", we begin with the science of the body that we can enumerate.

If a human body has two-hundred-and-six bones
and thirty trillion cells, and each cell
has one hundred trillion atoms, if the spine
has thirty-three vertebrae—

When I read articles about scientists studying love, it always seems so cold and dry. For example, when researchers measured hormone levels in young people who reported recently falling in love, they found "that the lovers had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people who hadn't lately been bitten by the love bug. They also found that the men who were in love had less testosterone than their single counterparts, and the women in love had more. The researchers speculated that falling in love may reduce some of the differences between the sexes, making men softer and women more aggressive."

That last piece of scientific conjecture is the most interesting: falling in love makes us more like each other.

Johnson's poem moves from the facts of the body to the body itself.

When our skin touches
our atoms touch, their shadows
merging into a shadow galaxy.

I don't think you need to read about the neuroscience of love in order to understand that falling in love and being in love does things to our brain and our bodies.  The challenge of this month's prompt is to use the science as a way to understand an aspect of love in a new way

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


They say magnets must have seemed magical
to the ancients. As long as I lived
with a mountain at magnetic-north, no matter
where I traveled, I kept that compass
in my head. When you walked into the class-
room you became mountain, shabby-
genteel in professorial tweed. In boots
and Levi’s you led me up a ridge and pointed
higher yet, to an escarpment, bighorn ram
with great curled horns – magnetic flux
of a coil and he was gone.
You’ve stayed through all our adventuring.
I wore out a compass, finding my way
through Piedmont woods tangled
as manzanita thickets mid-Sierra. You gave
me a new Silva, sturdier. But
even mountains erode. Your memory
is downwash, your shoulders alluvial fan;
gravel that once was boulder. I pick up layers
of slate – dark surface for writing our histories –
and crystals to catch light shining through.

Taylor Graham


The light from the sun
Takes 8 minutes and 20 seconds
To reach the Earth.
In this moment, you are seeing the sun as it was
8 minutes and 20 seconds ago.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away
So stand today
Warming your toes on our second nearest star -
It’s just a little warmer than the surface of the sun -
And look back on the Earth as it was
4.3 years ago.

Seen from Alpha Centauri
Our love is still alive, and thriving.
4.3 years ago we were walking on the beach in Wales
Where I taught you to skim flat stones
Out across the smooth water
Between the waves.
I massaged your glistening, willing body
In that hot, humid hotel room near Smithfield Market
And when we were spent, and sated,
We went out to the bars without showering,
Trailing pheromones after us, like a veil.

You could stand on Alpha Centauri
And watch us move into our house in the country
With your girls -
The day when the wild horses galloped down from the fells,
The herd parting around our car,
Rejoining beyond, flowing onwards and out of sight.

On a bridge of light stretching
From Earth to Alpha Centauri and beyond,
Every moment is playing out still -
Every moment, in this moment.

Damon Leigh


“Spooky action at a distance!” Einstein said,
as Alice tumbled through the atom’s top
where quarks and gluons began to hop
and grinned like cats both alive and dead.

“The speed of light is nature’s traffic cop.”
“Off with his head!” bellowed The Queen of Hearts,
as some clocks ticked and others, light-years apart
(with no regard for locality), tocked.

Alice dropped, spread out like a book on art,
but Hume, hands aloft, caught her as she fell.
“I told you so!” he stomped and began to yell:
“Effect and cause are always seen athwart.”

Sketching on a rock, Alice saw John Bell,
whose theorem, like a lightning bolt, unfurled,
while Hawking sat radiating smiles, curled
on a mushroom, teaching dodos to spell.

“I do not care,” said the Queen, “if my pearls
are dark, like mass, or if the world we see
is built of moonbeams, or muons, or ghee!”
Then she rose, bows and ribbons all awhirl.

Down she sat on a croquet field for tea
with the Avon Bard: “It makes perfect sense,”
he said, “look at the human heart and wince.
It’s filled with lightning storms and troubled seas.

“It loves and hates, is up and down, is tense
or loose, charmed or strange, on top or bottom.
Like Tweedle twins, spinning spring or autumn
it binds the universe and is immense.”

“Ah yes!” said Joyce, standing by, “it’s kingdom
is vast. . .” but Alice grabbed a flamingo
and hit a ball so hard it nipped his toe
at quantum speed, landing near a penguin

next to Yeats, at ease upon a pillow.
“You see,” he said, “the heart’s a glowing pyre
of ecstasy, where lovers perne in a gyre
in harmony, up and down, high and low.”

“We’re made of stars, that’s for sure, all afire
with love,” said Sagan strolling by, “we’re tied
together, yin and yang, both you and I,
to bond in hap or teen, as wife and sire.”

They all agreed, then sat to eat mince pie.
“Please,” Alice asked, “with whipped cream and butter?”
Everyone dug in, but the mad Hatter
rose to propose a toast, his cup on high.

“Here’s to lovers and to stars together,
their ins and outs, their tight, entangled dance.
Love is spooky action at a distance!”
All cheered, bursting into raucous laughter.

Robert Miller


I tend to maintain
[when I am in a maintaining sort of mood]
that socialism is the political expression
of empathy and the economic expression
of justice, and often I go about maintaining
that love is the glue
that binds the universe together...
so it doesn't go flying off
in all directions
[which it will anyway
but that's not my message

Today I'm just thinking out loud
about some real science I read
from some U in California
[I know; it sounds dodgy already]
but they have found
[though it's not transparent "how"]
that there's a vagus nerve problem
with rich people.
Old Moneybags is "empathy deficient."

No vagus nerve firing equals
no empathy. No empathy
equals a piss poor ambience
here on planet earth.

That thing that mostly passes for love
is mostly hormonal and riddled
with heavy social propaganda
[not to mention heavy breathing
and inflated importance
of all matters sexual...
you can tell I could go on, right?
But I won't]

The REAL things on the other hand.
L O V E of the category
that holds the entire universe together?
Now THAT requires mirror neurons
and a top flight vagus nerve.

I wasn't able to ascertain
if the lab in California
had hypothesized that this
empathy deficiency was hereditary
and the wealthy passed it down
through their upper class generations
or whether it afflicted
the nouveau riche as well.
Never can tell, eh?

Perhaps some are born loveless
some achieve lovelessness
and others have lovelessness
thrust upon them.
Poor bastards.

Timea Deinhardt/

your boyfriend sends you an article
from new york magazine
about the fate of the world
saying it will end
in the worst possible way
starting with people
boiling in their own skin
across the ocean
in puerto rico
and then three days later
he tells you
in a text message
that his climate change anxiety
is crippling
you are supportive and
pretend to be hopeful but
you don’t want to think about it
instead you imagine yourself
on a beautiful island beach
sewing blue and silver sequins
onto a t-shirt
in the shape of a dolphin
you drive to work
the sun rising behind you
hills drenched
you open the shop
at 6.45am and
it is already hot
straight to the cool room
drinking coconut water
from a can
the pie oven is warm
an automatic timer turns it on
in the middle of the night
air conditioning unit on high
the fridge motors buzz heat
packing bottles of milk
into the fridge
in a hurry
milky condensation drips down
and falls onto your legs

Sasha Rose


P. and the autobiography of scent
the perfumed wrist in a glove
that P. was compelled to turn inside out;
his tea, that heady brew of a body steeped in time.

For years I studied the metaphor,
its feints, its odors, its tottering feet.
I marked which cells
held tenderness, which salt rime.
At Balbec, I held my face up to the spray.

On an evening train from Boston to Penn
a young man inked with a prison tattoo,
soaked in the sweat of other men. I wouldn't have
guessed he was the lover of women.
Yet how a human body waxes hermaphroditic
like the limpet or the moss animal.

Somewhere dolphins somersault the sea,
there are bays and bridges and blue sailboats,
sometimes the scrawl of black winged gulls.
You're changing, World - a beetle thinks a bottle
is the orifice of his brittle love.

A poem rebukes the narrative, splits
like an atom and finally bursts. Smells of itself.

I sat in our train car slicing fruit, sharing it out
cells sugaring over, thickening the blood;
at each caesura of the narrative, a faint star drooped.
I spooled the words of P.'s theorem while Moon glittered
over the rails in its dark essence.

Carol Alexander


It may have started with a look
Unready eyes caught by surprise
A brief mind-melding probe
Disguised as conversation
A simple kiss
Lips locked just long enough
To taste each other’s perspiration
Testosterone infused with estrogen
Lust’s “get lucky” Mickey Finn
Then Serotonin overdosed on dopamine
And caused a scene
That, pretty much changed everything
Romantic Love – the gateway drug
To something even stronger
Oxytocin cut with Vasopressin
A lifelong habit with no antidote

Lust, romantic love, attachment
Nature’s trilogy of tricks
When it comes to love and courtship
Free Will’s just an urban myth
The cortex may take all the credit
But the Limbic brain’s in charge
We were driven to attraction
Became like putty in its grip
In time, that putty dried like glue
Joined us at the heart and hip
That was then and this is now
We're still each others here and how
Thirty years of chemistry
To me we're still a mystery

Frank Kelly


Long before LOL, OMG and TTYL
There was and still is GNRH produced by the brain
Which triggers the pituitary to produce FSH and LH
The hormones of youth
Now, exactly what they stand for IDK - but oh how it felt
The longing for and thrill from
The sweet crush of weight
The overwhelming rush of joy and anxiousness and anticipation
The unseen yet overwhelming release of chemicals
Every cell in my body alive and craving more all the time
A glimpse, a scent, a touch, a word, the mention of a name
Reinforcing the need, securing it
My brain firing away non-stop with only one thought
One subject – and the desire propelling me forward
Engaged in my own private rapture
Who master was I did not know
But I served willingly
Eager for what lie ahead
Pursuing both burn and salve
Chasing the sweet yet short lived reward
Like a Red Bull and a Marlboro chaser
An insatiable need
Sated momentarily but exquisitely
My skin felt electric
Food meant nothing
But nothing could extinguish
The hunger that was
Until the whim and winds of science and fate
Thrust me into the path of another
And the manic dance of brain and body began anew
As love again took hold of me
The same love- distilled by scientists into these three
Lust, attraction and attachment
Each with its own set of hormones
Lust driven by testosterone and estrogen
Libido, libido, reproduce, reproduce
Attraction by dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin
One led me along the yellow brick road of the brain’s reward pathways
Its partners in addiction fixed me up with euphoric giddiness, and insomniac energy
Finally – attachment
Brought to us by the bonding duo of oxytocin and vasopressin
But neither had a role in this two act play-
Where I was leading actor and director
Starring in my own romance
In a time long ago, without the help of social media or Dr. Phil
A willing captor, another case study subject
Blissfully unaware of the cocktail storm
Brewing in the beaker of my flesh
Besot by the beauty and the beast within my own body
Rational, critical thinking checked out
Lust and attraction entered
Neither by sea nor land
But via glands and organs
The prefrontal cortex of my brain had gone fishing’
And I gave myself over
Seducer and seduced
Science had cast its net
Upon a roiling sea of adolescence
And I was caught
Deliciously, painfully, wonderfully, hopelessly
In love
With love

Terri J. Guttilla