Move Over, Shakespeare–Science Has Insights Into Love, Too

Ideas 2015

Dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival/Spotlight Health
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ASPEN, Colo.Is science ever the way to a man or woman’s heart? This week, I’m sharing a variety of responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes courtesy of Professor Eli  Finkel of Northwestern University:


The idea that changed my life more than any other is that it’s possible to use the tools of science to unlock the secrets of the heart. By intuition, it seems that scientific methods would apply to topics like the movement of the planets, the boiling point of water, and the oxygenation of bodily organs—but not to topics like love and romantic passion.


Those latter topics, intuition tells us, belong to Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Whitman. Science should stay away. Indeed, when Senator William Proxmire introduced the “Golden Fleece Award” to ridicule people who were wasting the public’s money, the “winners” of the inaugural award in 1975 were scientists seeking to understand love and romantic desire.


Proxmire argued that using National Science Foundation money for this work was tantamount to fleecing the public because scientific efforts on such topics amount to “a futile and wasteful effort to define the impossible.”


In a fortunate development for human wellness, the 40 years since the inaugural Golden Fleece Award have robustly repudiated Proxmire’s view.


Although artists will always play a crucial role in understanding the human heart, it is now beyond refutation that we can also harness the power of the scientific method to support or falsify ideas about these most profound of human experiences. With these tools in hand, scientists have developed interventions that can turn relationship conflict from a corrosive to a constructive experience and that can help people sustain sexual desire for their spouse over time. In short, we can use science to understand the human heart—and, with that understanding in mind, we can increase human happiness and well-being.


That idea has been a life-changer for me.


Email conor@theatlantic.com to share an idea or insight that has thrilled or excited you.