Looking for Love


More than 300 people, mostly undergraduates, crowded into the Ida Noyes Cloister Club Thursday in hopes of finding out what love is. “Regardless of what they say about the U of C, we have a lot of love here,” began Nicole Baran, ’09, who organized the Chicago Society symposium featuring professors Martha McClintock, James Redfield, AB’54, PhD’61, Bert Cohler, AB’61, and moderator David Orlinsky, AB’54, PhD’62. “Or we’re looking for it.”

So what happens when you fall head over heels? McClintock, a psychology professor, described her research on MHC proteins, which vary from one individual to another and help the immune system distinguish the body’s cells from foreign ones. When McClintock took a set of T-shirts from male University students to female members of an isolated religious community, she found that they could detect tiny differences in the protein makeup, tending to prefer the smell of men with MHC proteins compatible with their own. “It was a sense of pleasantness,” McClintock said. “It just sort of made you want to go mmmmmm.” The compound in men’s smell, McClintock said, improves positive mood and decreases negative mood, contributing to that feeling of trust important to love.

Like McClintock, classics professor and Plato expert Redfield turned to his academic background for answers. In his 15-minute speech, “The Socratic Notion of Love: Sex as a Poor Substitute for Philosophy,” Redfield sketched out the Greek idea of eros, “a cosmic force” different from filia, which means friendship or kinship. Eros, or falling in love, “sort of hits you like hitting the pavement,” said Redfield. According to Plato, falling in love means “you see the god in a person” because you idealize him or her. But eros doesn’t last. “A few years ago,” quipped Redfield, “a woman said, ‘I adore you,’ and I said, ‘You’ll grow out of it.’”

Psychologist Cohler presented Freud’s theory of love. “In many ways, you love only as you love your mother,” Cohler said, explaining that your mother, the first person you love, becomes your lifelong model for love. It might not even be a person that you love, according to object-relations theory. “It could be an object. You could fall in love with shoes.” Orlinsky, a social scientist, joked, “If they smell right.”

Following the discussion, students lined up to ask questions. Overwhelmingly, they wondered whether knowing how love works would spoil it. “Does knowing the search process destroy the magic?” asked the first student in line. “Is there space for mystery?” asked another. The professors resoundingly answered that knowledge doesn’t spoil love. As Cohler put it, “Knowing the basis of love frees you to love more freely.”

Jenny Fisher, ’07

Photo: Students listen to Professor Cohler.

October 13, 2006