welcomes as our guest Dr. Berit Brogaard author of On Romantic Love:  Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion

Dr. Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Miami as well as the Network for Sensory Research at the University of Toronto. 

Her educational background includes a medical degree in neuroscience and a doctorate in philosophy. Her areas of research include perception, synesthesia, blindsight, consciousness, neuro-psychiatry and emotions.

She has authored over 150 peer-reviewed articles, some three hundred popular articles on neuroscience and health issues and four books: Transient Truths (Oxford), The Superhuman Mind (Penguin/Random House), On Romantic Love (Oxford) and Seeing & Saying (Oxford). 

She is currently finishing a fifth book to be published with Oxford on love and hate.

Her work has been featured in various public media, including BBC, CNN, Nightline, ABC News, the Huffington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, Daily Mail, Modesto Bee, and Mumbai Mirror. 

She is also an editor of the international peer-reviewed philosophy journal Erkenntnis and was the first female President of the Central States Philosophical Association.

Brit has fear-color/texture/shape/motion synesthesia. She tells that story in The Superhuman Mind, co-authored with Kristian Marlow. 

Norm: Good day Dr. Brogaard and thanks for participating in our interview

What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?

Dr. Brogaard: Two that I can think of:

One pertains mostly to my book The Superhuman Mind.

A journalist I know from New York--Maureen Seaberg-referred my first subject with acquired synaesthesia (an unusual cross-wiring of sensory streams) and acquired savant syndrome (extraordinary abilities) to me.

The subject she referred is the now highly acclaimed Jason Padgett, who has since then gone on to co-author a book about his condition with Maureen. When she referred Jason to me, my lab was devoted to investigating emotions (including love) as well as normal and unusual perception (including synaesthesia).

But I quickly learned that Jason was very different from the synesthetes we were studying at the time. He was an ordinary guy who had dropped out of college and who was mostly interested in partying when he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a mugging incident.

After the incident he suddenly started seeing the world in terms of geometrical figures. He also started drawing what he saw by hand. After his physical and emotional recovery, he took evening courses at a local community college in order to learn geometry and algebra. While in college, he realized that he understood the mathematical formulas in terms of the geometrical figures and shapes that he was constantly seeing.

This gave him the ability to shed new light on mathematics. He continued drawing the geometrical figures he saw by hand. The drawings are absolutely amazing. He even won a competition at the prestigious Miami Art Basel for his drawing. You can find examples of his drawings by Googling him.

Long story short, we studied his brain and found neural correlates of his ability to see the world in geometrical ways and understand mathematics in terms of what he sees.

He was our first subject with acquired synaesthesia and savant syndrome. Since then we have studied these phenomena in several other subjects, and we are still one of very few labs in the world that study these phenomena. 

The other thing I appreciate having done and that I might count as a success is not to let trends dictate what I work on. When people let trends dictate what they do, they are less likely to express what they really think about a particular subject matter.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today? 

Dr. Brogaard: Having a dual degree in neuroscience and philosophy has been a challenge in the past—mostly when I wanted to bring one area to bear on the other. When I started doing that, it was not very common for philosophers to rely extensively on neuroscience, and it was also fairly rare for neuroscientists to find philosophical big-picture ideas interesting. So, it was challenging at first to combine the two. I think times are changing, however.

Norm: Why and how did you become interested in romantic love and what motivated you to write On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion?

Dr. Brogaard: I had studied emotions for a long time when it occurred to me that love in all likelihood would need a separate analysis. So, I started doing the groundwork for the book. This included empirical and theoretical work. I realized prior to starting the actual writing process that there was a great interest in the general population in more accessible information on how your attachment styles influences your relationships and even your ability to fall in love. So, a lot of the book is focused on this topic. 

Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about the book?

Dr. Brogaard: The book examines love from various perspectives. I argue that love is an emotion. Most people take that for granted but this has not been the most popular view in academia. I also look in detail at how we can make sense of the idea of irrational love (or rational love for that matter).

Another major theme is the discussion of how you general attachment style can affect your relationships and your success in love or lack thereof. I also argue that love comes in degrees, even though we rarely think of it this way. If your boyfriend asked you whether you love him, and you replied ‘to some extent,’ you would likely hurt his feelings. But this is because of how our culture has made us think of love as an all-or-nothing matter.

The truth is, though, that we rarely reach the extremes of love. You don’t need to choose between a feeling that you might express with “OMG, I am so into you that I cannot eat, sleep or concentrate on my school work” and a feeling you might express with “I am so not into you. I can barely stand having you around as a friend.” To be sure: we do sometimes reach the extremes but it is much more common to be somewhere in between. 

Norm: What is your definition of romantic love and does it actually exist?

Dr. Brogaard: I define it as an emotion. As such, it exists. But some of the main points that I hope to get across are (i) romantic love isn’t the kind of thing that (ordinarily) will last very long. (ii) if you want a long-term relationship, you will have to accept that romantic love normally is replaced by attachment (plus some physical attraction) after a year or two of being close to each other. (iii) There is no reason to be upset by or afraid of romantic love that is not at the extreme end of the spectrum. Loving someone and being loved by someone to some degree are actually very natural and very common. 

Norm: Is there such a thing as love at first sight? Please elaborate.

Dr. Brogaard: In addition to distinguishing between degrees of love, I also distinguish between kinds of love, e.g. romantic love, friendship love, attachment love, parental love, altruism and so on. Can you fall in love (romantically) at first sight? In principle, yes. But we have evidence that what most people describe as romantic love at first sight in fact, is lust or physical attraction combined with the excitement of being around someone new. 

Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?

Dr. Brogaard: I interviewed subjects at all stages of their relationships. I also examined the works of many of the philosophers who have written extensively about love. Finally, I read almost all the published empirical studies of love that I could find. 

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

 Dr. Brogaard: The most difficult part was to make it interesting and accessible to people who don’t already work in the discipline. Even though I had a contract with Oxford University Press, I still wanted the book to be for people outside of academia (as well as inside). I had to re-write it many times to get closer to what I took to be a book that would be of use for both academics and general readers.

I actually enjoyed overcoming the challenge of rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until the book’s language and its messages appeared to be suitable for all of the intended audiences. 

I also truly enjoyed finding more and more evidence suggesting that love is so different from what is often made out to be. Although some might see this as a kind of pessimism about true love, it is in fact also a way of making love more attainable and for people to be happy in their relationships even if they are not so madly in love that everything else has to be set aside.

Norm: Are there vocabulary words or concepts in your book that may be new to readers? Define some of those. 

Dr. Brogaard: In the book I try to define new concepts whenever I introduce them. Or I introduce them colloquially and then inform the reader of the more technical term later.

Some of the concepts that I am hoping the book can elucidate are: 

Irrational love: Love that you ought not feel.

Polyamory: Loving more than one person romantically.

Avoidant attachment: a tendency to avoid commitment, especially relationship commitment.

Anxious attachment: a tendency to behave in a clingy way in relationships. I desire to spend a lot of time together with one’s partner, and a strong need for validation by others.

Prototype concept: a concept that is not defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (e.g., ‘even number’ can be defined as ‘divisible by two’). Instead there are things, people or events that are very central to the concept and some that are in the periphery. ‘chair’ is a prototype member of the prototype concept ‘furniture.’ A chair is clearly a piece of furniture. Lamps are less clearly a piece of furniture. So the concept of lamp lies at the periphery of the prototype concept furniture.

Norm: What is the most important thing that people don't know about your subject that they need to know?

Dr. Brogaard: I think it is important for people to begin to think of love as a degree notion, and adjust their expectations and behaviour accordingly. If you expect love to be as it is depicted at the end of most romantic comedies, you are going to be very disappointed when you try to make a love relationship work.

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? 

Dr. Brogaard: Besides some of the things I mentioned earlier, I hope the chapter devoted on how one might fall out of love will be helpful. If you love a person, but your love is irrational, then you ought not to love that person. But we cannot just decide not to love a person. It requires hard work, using established psychological techniques.

I also want to show that love is much more within our control than most people think. We can take steps to fall out of love. And we can indeed also take steps that will increase the likelihood that a person who does not reciprocate your loving feelings will start to like you in a romantic way. 

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

Dr. Brogaard: Most importantly, I hope the reader will think something along the lines of: “I now realize that I should not compare realistically attainable love to the all-consuming romantic love typically depicted in popular media. Now that the bar has been lowered, I am more optimistic about finding love and appreciating its nuances” 

Some additional take-aways:

That most instances of love are mild or moderate rather than extremely intense.

That you need to decide whether you want a long-term relationship (or marriage) or you want to feel “in love.” You cannot have both (at least not if you are like most people).

That the beginning stormy phrases of romantic love share their underlying chemical profile with certain mental illnesses e.g. obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. This is NOT to say that when we fall in love, we satisfy the criteria in the DSM for having those disorders but only that the uncertainty, jealousy, obsession and mood-swings that often are associated with new love are driven by the chemicals in the brain that trigger certain psychological disorders 

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and On Romantic Love?

Dr. Brogaard:

One place is the FACEBOOK PAGE

Psychology Today The Mysteries of Love:


Norm: What is next for Dr. Berit Brogaard?

Dr. Brogaard: I am working on a book on love and hate as well as a book on personality from a philosophical perspective 

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?

Dr. Brogaard: 

Q: Is romantic love a cultural construct or is it closely related to what our distant ancestors experienced?

Q: I am asexual and aromantic. Can I still learn something from this book?

Q: What exactly is the age group of the intended readers? Is the book suitable for people in their late teens? 

Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and good luck with On Romantic Love.