Bernard Perlin. The Lovers. 1946. Gouache and ink on paper-faced board, 30 × 37 3/4" (76.2 × 95.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

What makes us fall in love with someone? Is it their sense of humor or kind eyes? Or is it a shared interest, something you can do together? It’s no secret that some of the most powerful art has been inspired by love, that singular, indescribable feeling that, as it turns out, we are all capable of experiencing. “We all have the 12 brain areas that are critical for love,” says Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a leading figure in the neuroscience of social connections. It doesn’t matter if that love we feel is for our friends, our community, or our romantic partners, the only thing that changes between these relationships is the intensity we feel and see in the brain. What’s more, when we embrace that love, amazing things can happen and our brains become stronger.

In this Valentine’s Day episode of the Magazine Podcast, we’re exploring the science of love and how art can help foster it. We’ll hear from Dr. Cacioppo about her research, and from a couple who met at MoMA more than 50 years ago. Together, they’ll teach us that we don’t need to look far for love—sometimes we’ll find it where we least expect.

Aleksandra Mir. I Love Love. 2004

Aleksandra Mir. I Love Love. 2004

See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.

Ken Solomon. Love Letter. 2004

Ken Solomon. Love Letter. 2004

Myron Farber: I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe there is infatuation at first sight. There is maybe even enchantment at first sight. There’s hope at first sight. But over time, there’s a certain sense of a good relationship, a good partnership, a degree of mutual interest, I’ll mention also humor, which I think is vital in any relationship. Out of these ingredients, I think, you get to something that people call love.

Sabine Farber: It is vital, because it’s a center of your life, I think. That is enough.

Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo: I believe that I have found the key to lasting love, and it’s in the brain. The more we look at the brain in love, the more we can understand its truth and its importance for humanity.

Whatever the future of our social life will look like, love must be the foundation. My research has revealed that not only we are wired for love, but we cannot realize our full potential as human beings without love.

Arlette Hernandez: Hi, I’m Arlette Hernandez. Welcome to MoMA’s Magazine Podcast.

Today, I’m picking up where my friend and former colleague Natasha Giliberti left off on February 14, 2020. This is Must Love Art, part two.

I’ll be honest—I’m a little skeptical about love. I could never understand why something that has the potential to hurt us so much was also so important to our lives. And I don’t think I’m alone there.

SC: I grew up believing it was my fate to be alone forever, and I even told myself that being alone and non-attached made me a more objective scientist, and that I could investigate love without being under its spell.

AH: That’s Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, or as many people know her, Dr. Love.

SC: I think I was interested in the study of love for as long as I can remember. I was born an only child in a very small isolated ski station in the French Alps. As I was growing up, I noticed that there was something separating me and children who had siblings. They all seemed more comfortable with themselves and with other children.

I was fascinated by the social dynamics and the connections that seemed elusive to me. I became curious about what I was missing, and this curiosity led me to dive deep into the neurobiology of love.

AH: I first learned about Dr. Cacioppo’s work through her book, Wired for Love. Part memoir and part research summary, Wired for Love is all about the science of love and how our brain—not necessarily our heart—is behind it.

SC: The brain is an incredibly important organ because it’s played a crucial role in our survival as a species. From an evolutionary viewpoint, our brain proved more decisive in our survival than our opposable thumbs. Think about it: other species could run faster, smell better, see better, jump higher, and fight better than we could.

Other animals might have had all these physical advantages over us, but our collective social skills and our ability to form connections thanks to our social brain were key to our survival.

Our brain allowed us to bond with strangers, to form families and communities, and to identify friends from foes. Finally, we humans also learned how to trust each other and say words like, “I love you.”

AH: In this episode of Must Love Art, we’re diving deep into the neuroscience of love. But we’ll also hear about what love looks like in practice, and how art can help foster it.

SC: Love is not just an emotion. Love is a biological necessity and a way of thinking. Love makes us feel better, and also think faster. Love makes us more creative.

When we are falling in love with someone, the first thing we notice is how good it feels. It’s because the brain releases feel-good neurotransmitters that boost our mood. It’s like a biological fireworks. Our heart rate is elevated, our levels of the so-called “love hormone,” oxytocin, are rising, which makes us feel connected. And our levels of the hormone and neurotransmitter called norepinephrine are spiking, which makes us lose track of time. Our levels of adrenaline rise, which expands the capillaries in our cheeks and makes us blush or flush.

Meanwhile, our levels of serotonin, which is a key hormone in regulating appetite and anxious thoughts, fall down. So when we are in love, we might find ourselves eating irregularly or fixating on small details, like worrying about the last thing we said or the most recent text we sent, and wondering if we said the right words.

AH: Picture this: you’re roaming through MoMA’s galleries when, all of the sudden, you spot somebody from the corner of your eye. You know absolutely nothing about this person, but there’s something about the way they’re dressed or the way they smell or that intense way they’re staring at a work of art. Something about them makes you curious and pulls you closer.

This is what happened to Myron and Sabine Farber 50 years ago.

SF: My name is Sabine Farber.

MF: I’m Myron Farber, Sabine’s husband of nearly 55 years.

AH: I met Myron and Sabine through their children, who sent an email with the subject line, in all caps, “ART = LOVE.” Their message got straight to the point: “In 1968,” they wrote, “our parents met at MoMA.”

MF: My wife was born in Nantes, France, and was raised there and in Paris, and then she came, ultimately, in her twenties, to New York. And was working at Air France, which at that time was around the corner from MoMA here on Fifth Avenue.

I myself was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up there. After college and graduate school, I became a reporter. In 1966, the New York Times hired me. So that brought me to New York. Neither of us were New Yorkers.

SF I liked New York. Always. And there was always some art in my life.

MF: You were also around the corner.

SF: This was very handy. It was very useful for me because I was working right there, very close by.

MF: That led to that fateful day in 1968.

I needed to pay my taxes in the spring of 1968 and I didn’t know anybody who was involved in that kind of thing. I discovered there was a tax preparer, H&R Block, I think the name was, on East 86th Street. One day, a very hot day, I went there and paid my taxes with what was projected to be a pretty good outcome, and I was somewhat euphoric about that, and decided I was going to walk to the Times, which at that time was on West 43rd Street off Times Square.

By the time I got near MoMA, I was so hot that I needed a beer, and in those days, MoMA had a small restaurant facing the sculpture garden. That’s where I went and sat down and had a beer.

After I was finished and obliged, of course, to go to work, I was passing out of the Museum onto 53rd Street when I noticed a girl in one of the rooms. I had known a girl in Washington who worked in a very fine bookstore there who was Bolivian. Altogether platonic, this is a friend of mine, and from the back, the person who turned out to be Sabine looked a lot like that woman. Her hair was done the same way, and I guess I had maybe more than one beer, because I went over to her, she was facing the wall looking at some picture, and I asked her…

SF: ...if I was Bolivian.

MF: Are you Bolivian?

SF: Yes. I was surprised.

MF: She probably hadn’t been asked that question before.

SF: No. Nobody ever asked me if I was Bolivian.

MF: She turned around in her Air France uniform and denied it, and then things went from there.

SF: I was surprised, but I was amused. I said, “No, but I’m French,” and that is where we started.

MF: And I asked her out. Really, maybe I had three beers. I don’t know! I asked her out and she said she was busy.

SF: No, I did not say that.

MF: Yes, you had a date that night.

SF: Oh, maybe, but I was living not too far, so I guess we caught up again.

MF: She had a date that night, and I remember that later that evening after work, I was at the bar at the Russian Tea Room. I don’t wanna sound like I’m a drunkard. I rarely drank to excess, never have. But I was at the Russian Tea Room, and Sabine must have given me her number. She was living at that time…

SF: Mrs. Edelheimer’s.

MF: Mrs. Edelheimer, a couple doors from Carnegie Hall, she had one of these fabulous apartments with many rooms that was almost certainly rent-controlled. But there were no eating facilities

SF: She did not want people to eat there, and I had a friend who insisted in eating there and she was not happy, so she got kicked out. But I was following the rule.

MF: And so Sabine was eating a lot at Horn & Hardart on the same block near Carnegie Hall. But I remember calling her, and the person who answered there misunderstood my name as Byron, not Myron. But anyway, eventually I wore Sabine down and got a date with her.

SF: That was good. It was a good move.

AH: The beginning of love can feel like a flood of emotions, in part because of all those hormones and neurotransmitters Dr. Cacioppo just told us about. But what happens once we start settling into love?

SC: When we’re starting to feel a deep sense of calm and contentment with our partner, brain areas are activated in a network that triggers not just basic emotions, but also more complex and sophisticated cognitive functions, like self-expansion. This can lead to several positive results like pain suppression, more compassion, more empathy, better memory, and greater creativity.

Before I created the map of the brain for love, I have to say that I was stunned to discover that love triggered different regions in the brain that we thought as being remote from the emotional brain.

I wondered if it was a fluke or if there was something really like a signature of love in the brain. So I did a meta-analysis, which means that I did a big group study of previous fMRI studies that had been conducted on love, and I drew on results that had been reported in earlier papers, and also on additional data that scientists hadn’t thought to include in their peer-reviewed articles, but which might offer clues. Remember, I think of myself like the detective of love, and in this meta-analysis I really tried to find all the clues that will tell me the truth about love in the brain.

My coauthors and I spent weeks in front of a computer and when we finished crunching the numbers, we found that love activates 12 specific brain regions. This map includes not only the usual suspects, like the areas involved in basic emotions or the reward system in the brain, but surprisingly, the map of love in the brain also involved higher-level cognitive brain areas—like the angular gyrus just above your ear—that involves functions like self-representation, body image, and self-expansion.

Then when I compared the brain map of love to that of friendship, I saw that there was something universal about the map of love in the brain. We all have the 12 brain areas that are critical for love. We all have the potential to fall in love, like we all have the potential to fall in love with an art piece at the MoMA.

MF: I pursued her rather strongly. I lived, at that time, in the Village, on West 11th Street. It had a kitchen like a closet, but it was very nice. It faced the back and there was trees. These streets in the Village, they face each other, then there’s gardens in between that you never get to see unless you live there, really. When I showed that to Sabine, she recognized that that was a step up. This is no Mrs. Edelheimer in her grouchy moods. So pretty soon....

SF: I moved with him.

MF: She moved in with me.

SF: Yes. And eventually we had the child, Delphine, and it was great.

MF: When Sabine moved in, one of the first nights, she cooked a roast in this little closet kitchen. She cooked a roast that later Gourmet tried to offer me a fortune for the recipe. I mean, it was perfect.

SF: It was an accident. I’m not such a great cook now.

MF: Things only went up from there. By 1969, we decided to get married, and we were married on May 29, 1969.

AH: All this from a chance encounter at MoMA.

To this day, Myron and Sabine continue to visit MoMA and one of their favorite things to do together is look at art.

MF: I’ll show you something here. We keep a list of everything that’s going on in museums, a rolling list that I change weekly, and with the dates when exhibits are leaving. So little escapes us by way of what’s going on in the city and museums. We’ve been doing that for a long time. Ever since we were young, we’ve been going to museums a lot.

People can tell whether you are...potentially compatible. And we were.

SF: We have been for a while.

MF: Sabine, to my great regret, had other boyfriends before me, I had other girlfriends before her, and they faded away. If you ask me today what happened in those relationships that caused them not to gel, as opposed to Sabine and my relationship, I couldn’t recall. I don’t know why that happened. But there are very few people, I think, today, who just meet one person and then that’s it. For better or for worse, that’s not our lives.

AH: Their love story seemed to unfold so quickly, I couldn’t help but wonder if art played a role in it. So I asked Dr. Cacioppo if there might be some biological reason for how these two art-lovers found each other.

SC: When you think about it, art collectively bonds us all. Think of human connections like you would think of three rings: one inner ring that is about your intimate connections with your intimate partner. Then you have a ring that is a little bit larger, but doesn’t include many more people. It’s more about the people in your work life, your coworkers, your friends, your teammates. And then think about an outer ring that is much bigger than the other two rings. This bigger ring is about collective identity, collective connections—thinking of yourself not only as one individual, but as someone who connects with things that are so much bigger than yourself, that when you love them and relate to them, you think that together, you are bigger than the sum of the parts.

Art is in this collective ring, this bigger ring, that plays this role of the glue that bonds us all together.

So in the specific case of this couple, by sharing their experiences and interpretation of the artwork at MoMA, they likely discovered shared interests, values, and experiences, and their common love for art.

My research on the neuroscience of love and passion suggests that both art and love activate similar brain areas, like the visual areas important for admiring the art, but also a network called the reward network that pushes dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitters all over the brain. Art also activates, just like love, this brain area that is important for identification and self-expansion and identity, the angular gyrus. So both art and love can serve as a catalyst for self-expression and self-expansion, two keys to lasting love.

In my deepest heart, I feel like the art of MoMA—and I talk from a personal experience now—can influence and enrich the journey of love of everyone who visits.

AH: The personal experience Dr. Cacioppo is referencing is her relationship with Dr. John Cacioppo, or as some have called him, Dr. Loneliness.

SC: Dr. John Cacioppo was the love of my life. And John was to social neuroscience what Jackson Pollock was to Abstract Expressionist art.

He initially studied economics, but his interest was in people. He loved people, and he loved a field called social psychology, and he created the field social neuroscience. But what John is most famous for is also his work on loneliness. He popularized the concept that prolonged loneliness can be as toxic to health as smoking cigarettes.

John was an academic celebrity, and when we met, he had written like 20 books. His articles had been cited more than 100,000 times. His research had received tens of millions of dollars in grant money. But it was not his resume that drew me to him, but his deep and empathetic hazel eyes.

We met in the early morning of January of 2011 at the neuroscience conference in Shanghai. I had flown in from Geneva, where I had just taken a post as a research professor for the Swiss National Foundation, and I was being invited to that conference to speak on the importance of human connections. And as I sat there, totally jet-lagged, I had no idea that this conference was going to change my life.

The organizers sat all the international speakers together. John sat next to me. John and I quickly had an easy conversation. He knew my work, which meant the world to me. We met and it was a really natural connection. We spoke for three hours that day. We dated internationally. We eloped and married in Paris. We were always spontaneous, and every time, I felt all the dopamine rushing through every cell of my being.

Now that I look back, I feel that it was love at first sight, but that day I was not sure. I didn’t pause or reflect on what was happening, but if I had, I would’ve really noticed the clear signs of what is called “love at first sight.” We really felt that we could finish each other’s sentences. I found a part of myself in him, even if I never met him before, and that’s also another sign of this immediate and instantaneous connection with someone.

AH: MoMA was one of the first museums John and Stephanie experienced together during their first visit to New York City.

SC: It was a magical day, like every day at the MoMA. You know what to expect, but you’re always surprised to find new art pieces that are always surprising and create connections in your mind that you never thought could exist. You see art in different ways every time.

When we went there we were so excited, and that brought us even closer together because we found ourselves admiring the same art. You know when you see a piece of art and you feel the butterflies in the stomach like you feel when you fall in love for the first time with someone? That's how we felt there. We found our love for each other again while looking and admiring art.

AH: John and Stephanie were inseparable. They lived together, worked together, travelled together, exercised together. There were even news articles published about their relationship and what happened after Dr. Love met Dr. Loneliness.

But every love story is vulnerable to change.

In 2018, Dr. John Cacioppo died after a long battle with cancer.

SC: It’s hard to think about John not being here today. When I lost John, I lost a part of me, and probably I lost the best part of me. But through the process, I feel like John helped me understand that the key to keeping him alive and in my life was facing that pain of loss, the pain of trying to understand that he was no longer here.

And once I did that, once I faced the void, I found him all around me. That’s probably the biggest lesson I got from writing this book and reflecting on my experience of grief, is that to love someone when they’re gone just means holding them closer, keeping them in the part of your brain that feels like your heart.

I used to see love only through the lens of science, but when I met John, he taught me to see through the lens of humanity as well. And once I did, my life and my research were changed forever.

AH: The experience of finding and losing John taught Stephanie that love is intimately tied to pain. We cannot have love without at some point experiencing grief or pain. In some ways, it’s the price we pay for experiencing it. But the benefits far outweigh that costs.

John Cacioppo’s research demonstrated that loneliness, or the absence of love—whether it be familial, platonic, romantic—it can have devastating impacts on our physical and mental health.

SC: Science defines loneliness as a cognitive discrepancy between what we want and what we have in a relationship. One is not the loneliest number. You can feel lonely in a marriage, in a group, at work, also by yourself. It’s all about what you want right now in your social relationship. If you want to be alone by yourself and experience what we call solitude—to feel more inspired, or to create art—that’s okay. It’s not loneliness.

From a neurobiology perspective, loneliness is a biological signal, just like thirst or hunger. Loneliness tells us that there is something wrong about the way we perceive our social environment and we need to do something about it to survive.

The cure to loneliness is our social connections. In this time of social flux where more and more people feel lonely, I’m here to make the case that if you feel lonely, you are not alone. Together, we can feel better. Together, we can feel more connected through our common passions, for our common love of others and common love of art.

Love, in the holistic and expansive way I’m now conceiving of the term based on my research and experience, is the opposite of loneliness. Love is that feeling of social connection and plenty that we all need.

AH:: At the core of Dr. Cacioppo’s research is the belief that love can make us better people. Love is the secret to helping a healthy brain thrive. And the secret to finding love? Well, maybe it’s in the art.

MF: I want to say one thing, finally. These two aren’t normally spoken together of, but Sabine and I both owe the IRS and MoMA our happy lives. If I hadn’t paid taxes that day, I wouldn’t have been thirsty. I wouldn’t have stopped at MoMA. I wouldn’t have seen Sabine. So I made the pledge that I would continue to pay taxes and I do continue to pay taxes. And of course, we’re members of MoMA.

SF: It was a happy coincidence.

MF: That’s right. So who is more responsible for this relationship? MoMA or the IRS? I don’t know and I don’t give a damn. All I know is it’s okay.

SF: I think that is true. I agree.

This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez, with mixing and sound design by Brandi Howell and original music by Emma Jackson.

MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.