Love and cognition

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1486). The Uffizi, Florence.

By Danijela Kambaskovic

St Valentine’s Day has arrived an our wedding day is fast approaching. Even though Darren and I have been together for six years, have two kids and are not spring chickens, I am in a whirl. What is this thing called love? How does it affect our brains? Is its primary function inspiration and ability to give our work wings – or does it suck all our creative energies and render us incapable of rational and creative thinking?

If this is on your mind too, neither of us would be the first to ask the question. Plato describes love madness, or mania – a term still in psychiatric use to denote an unnaturally heightened state of mind marked by periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions and overactivity – by way of a list of symptoms: paleness, insomnia, shivering, fluctuation between joy and sadness, obsessive thinking about the beloved, abandonment of rational thinking and all trappings of dignity.[1] Almost identical symptoms then recur in numerous proto-medical treatises on love sickness over subsequent centuries, as well as in medieval and early modern poem sequences and plays.

But there is something fundamentally different about Plato’s discussion of the symptoms of love madness and the way that love madness is described in later texts. Plato allocates love madness the highest status of all divine madnesses (prophetic, mystic and poetic are the other three)[2] – a high valuation due, in large part, to the linking of mania with inspiration (enthusiasmos), and so an increase in the cognitive and creative functions of the lover under its influence.[3] Plato sees this enhancement as the philosophical purpose behind the suffering associated with other symptoms of love madness. In other words – if you want to experience moments of immortal creativity, you must suffer for them.

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Image: Trilingual compendium of texts (MS Gg.1.1). Early fourteenth century. © Cambridge University Digital Library

By contrast, premodern medical treatises on love madness and melancholy (Constantine the African, Andreas Capellanus, Bernard de Gordon, Jacques Ferrand, Timothy Bright and Robert Burton, amongst others) describe love madness using Plato’s symptoms, but with a consistently negative axiological valuation of the condition of love madness – now it is viewed as a cognitive impairment and a dangerous condition jeopardising health and sanity. Consequently, these treatises advocate prevention and numerous aggressive (and bizarre) treatments.

I am convinced that it is precisely these divergent valuations of cognitive impact that constitute the fundamental axiological difference between the views on the identical symptoms of love madness found in Platonist philosophy on the one hand, and premodern medical treatises on the other. It is interesting that these dual valuations of cognitive effects of desire persist to this day.

Frankly, I think love does both.

***Speaking of which – please submit abstracts for the symposium on Love and Cognition (or love and mind), organised jointly by me (The University of Western Australia) and Kimberley-Joy Knight (The University of Sydney) and the  CHE Love Research Cluster, which will be held in Melbourne on 6 December 2016 (place and plenaries TBA; please contact for further information). Call for papers closes 15 April 2016. Please circulate!

Danijela Kambaskovic is a CHE Research Associate based at The University of Western Australia. Her current research traces the invention of the use of the first person mode to talk of love and the principal genres used to represent the experience of love in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It aims to show that these writings are key not only to the development of first person narrative and writing in Europe, but also to the cultural history of love – as an emotion (verbally described), as raw material for art, as a phenomenon of medical history and as a social force. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Internal Monologues (Fremantle Press, 2013), and an edited collection of scholarly essays, Conjunctions: Body, Mind and Soul in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods (Springer, 2014).

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, 251d.

[2] Plato, Phaedrus, 265b.

[3] Plato, Phaedrus, 245a.

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