What is love, exactly?

The question has baffled philosophers and fools alike for ages. With Valentine’s Day so near, many may find that the question is surfacing in their hearts and minds, as well.

Whether or not one is in a romantic relationship, Valentine’s Day brings about some degree of soul searching. Some individuals may have a hesitancy to answer this question with specifics or certainty, perhaps keeping love a matter of internal understanding. Others may call love a more universal ideal.

Poetic or plain, no two definitions are exactly alike.

“My definition of love would be a cross between sacrifice and expression,” says Luke Johnston, a 21-year-old student at Yakima Valley Community College. “I don’t believe love to be possible if one or both of those involved cannot sacrifice for the other. The same can be said for expression. Love cannot exist without honest expression.”

A more metaphoric definition of love comes from 20-year-old Mike Alfano, a personal trainer who recently moved to the area.

“Love is simple,” Alfano says. “When you’re in love, nothing can interfere. Its foundation is trust. Its walls are loyalty. Love’s windows are intimacy, and its front door is honesty.”

Madeline Noe, a 17-year-old senior at Davis High School, says: “Well, there are many different types of love. Like, the love you feel for family and friends is much different than the love we feel for a spouse or partner. But both are difficult to live without.”

Then there are the points of view about love that are raised by Northwestern University psychology major Hannah Fischer, a 20-year-old Davis graduate: “I guess as a feeling or concept, I’d say it’s being completely comfortable around a person. … It’s a deep understanding of a person to their core, while having them understand you the same way.”

However, the answer, if there is one, may not necessarily reside in the soul at all.

Fischer mentions that some studies are beginning to suggest there are specific patterns of brain activity when a person is experiencing feelings of love, intimacy or connection, made visible with an MRI.

One such study comes from Syracuse University’s Department of Psychology. Researchers there looked at what they called “the neuroimaging of love,” in which reviewed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies that have attempted to recognize the associations our brain’s cortical networks have with different types of love.

In layman’s terms, these studies look at how the different parts of the brain work while an individual is experiencing different types of love. The study drew two conclusive points, one being that there were specific parts of the brain that lit up on the MRI image repeatedly during the trials. This suggests that there is a similar basis of brain activity for many of the different types of love a human being feels. However, the second conclusion this research supported suggests that there are also distinct differences in brain activity for different intimate feelings. It was recognized that the human brain’s capacity for higher cognitive thinking (the ability to use reason and learn), may be what allows a person to have these distinct emotions.

Another study, conducted by Arthur Arun, a New York psychologist, goes so far as to suggest a recipe for love. Arun instructed his subjects to follow three steps: find an absolute stranger, share intimate details of their life with that stranger for 30 minutes, then stare deeply into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Arun then spoke with his subjects, and discovered that a large number of them felt deep feelings of intimacy with the stranger they had met not more than an hour before — some even claiming to have feelings of love. Two of his subjects were later married to the strangers they had met during the experiment.

The idea of being able to break down love into a series of chemical reactions or a specific pattern of brain activity may be unsettling to some. Fischer says this idea does not bother her at all.

“I’m a psych major, and I’ve also taken a lot of bio, organic chemistry and neuro classes, so I’m really interested. We’re all made up of tiny atoms. Sometimes it bothers people when they feel like they’ve been reduced to carbon. But I feel like our bodies know what they are doing. If you feel a real connection with someone, your brain will know to release oxytocin and dopamine and whatnot.”

As the scientific world expands into new territories, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Similarities may exist in the way people experience love. Love is made unique, however, by a person’s ability to learn, reason and perceive the world. This high cognitive function of the cortex happens to be the very thing that makes us human.

• Helena Storlie is a senior at Davis High School and a member of Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed journalism program for high school students.