27 September 2006

Why we read and write and love

This evening, I went to hear a lecture given by Helen Fisher, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers and author of several books on the science of why people fall in love. Her latest book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love details her research into physiological changes in the brains of people in love as revealed by MRIs. Her work is fascinating and I'm sure that I couldn't do it justice summarizing here. If interested in details, go to her website, click on the 'more' link at the end of the first paragraph, and scroll down for a Q&A that summarizes the lecture I heard.

One of the things that interested me apart from her findings was an aside about literature. After making several references to authors and their works, Dr. Fisher commented that while other anthropologists may study pottery shards, she thought that poetry was a worthy object for the study of how people behave when infatuated, newly in love, in a life-long love relationship, or in pain over rejection and loss. She didn't quote at length from any particular work, but did recite a few lines from various poems and mentioned that she saw the world's oldest love letter (on a cuneiform-inscribed pot) in Turkey. She promised she would recite the world's "most beautiful love poem" in class tomorrow. I'm a little jealous of the students who get to hear that. She didn't give a title but said that it was native Alaskan poetry.

Poets, she said, for centuries have bled for lost love. How true. To capture a human emotion common to all humanity's experience -- love, rage, fear, sadness, joy, awe -- isn't that the objective of literature? It's why we write. And why we read.


Dorothy W. said...

That's a very interesting way for an anthropologist to look at literature! I kind of like it -- why shouldn't it be some kind of evidence when one is studying culture?

Cam said...

Dorothy, One of the things that Fisher said was that romantic love hasn't been considered as a suitable study topic until recently because it wasn't considered scientific. It was considered supernatural, a phenomena that at best can't be measured, at worst something that isn't believed to exist. But, if you look at literature, we have been studying it for centuries!

And it makes sense that Fisher's findings support that what happens with the chemicals in our brains when we fall in love is the same across cultures. Doesn't literature suggest that as well? Perhaps that is why many of the literary quotes that she used in her lecture are from non-Western cultures.

litlove said...

Literature is the best evidence of culture there is - after all it charts the way love has changed through the centuries, from courtly medieval love, through romance and into more postmodern eroticised uncertainties. Literature must be interesting to anthropologists because it's where we are most revealing about our social structures. Must have been a fascinating lecture, Cam!

Anonymous said...

That's all very interesting.

I'd love to have heard the best love poem - Alaskan did you say? Who'd've thought!