Love is not something that happens to you, not merely something you experience — it’s something you make.
Like all good hypotheses, this seems obvious in retrospect, but remember that back then people believed love was all around. They thought it a poetic ether which was in the air. They thought it drove the revolutions of our planet. They even thought you could fall into it, like drunken teenagers into a Jacuzzi.
It was Dr Lotty Lovelock, by way of an ingenious two-year experiment, who nailed the coffin on those crazy ideas, and her work is the focus of today’s lecture. What she did was this.
In those days, the world was full of introverted, lonely people who are scared to make contact. Dr Lovelock reached out to those who’d signed up on dating apps, but only ever browsed. She devised a drippingly personalised email — the same one for all recipients — which read:
‘We have identified you as exceptionally warm-hearted but misunderstood individual. We need you to help us investigate how animals feel affection.’
No, that wasn’t the real goal of her experiments, as you and I know, but those lonely people were kept in the dark.
Dr Lovelock met all the lonely people, and to each of them she gave a grey cat.
At this point, let’s talk about independent variables. First, not every cat was the same: some were plush and healthy, others were mangy, malnourished mogs. Second, in each cat, Dr Lovelock had implanted a chip to stimulate or depress the limbic system, thereby parameterising the affection the animal displayed toward its owner.
There is also the question of how to measure love. Well, that is a tricky one, and the aspect of her work that received most criticism. Love is, most emphatically, a first-person experience, so Lovelock’s primary measure was simply to ask the owners to grade their affection. Moreover, she also recorded physiological responses to be sure the scores were qualitatively, if not quantitatively, accurate.
We know that owners love their pets, and why not? They are, after all, animals like you and me. If love were something you fell in to — something random, like being seated next to the love of your life on a plane — then we’d expect, on average, an equal amount of love for the healthy cats as for the mangy ones. That isn’t what Dr Lovelock found.
After one year there was no longer a difference in health between the mangy and the plush cats — all were in prime health. However, there was a substantial difference in the amount of love the two groups of owners felt. In short, those lonely people who’d sacrificed more of their lives to nursing their cats experienced deeper love for their feline companions.
A follow-up questionnaire suggested they were also less lonely than the plush-group owners.
The second part of the test occurred over the second year. Both groups of owners — plush and mangy — had the affections of their cats manipulated. Half of each group’s cats became more loving, while the other half’s became more indifferent.
Without a doubt, you’ve guessed the results. The owners who were most devoted were the very ones who’s beloved beasts were most indifferent. Moreover, the trend was even stronger in the owners who had reported a stronger love for their animals after the first-year test.
All this is very interesting, but what use is science if it doesn’t shine a light on the human condition? Well, there was an uproar when Dr Lovelock’s paper was published in Nature: the public were loath to accept responsibility for their love.
How times change, eh? Nowadays, we start form primary school and teach everyone to own their love, create it, and thus afford it the value it deserves.
Now, class, what questions do you have about Dr Lotty Lovelock’s famous revelation?
A hand shot up, right at the front. As the question echoed across the hall, many heads nodded in agreement.
That’s a little off topic, but the nature of her discovery did make her personal life the focus of much attention.
Three months into the experiment, one of the participants died and his cat, which was scratching on death’s door, ended up back at Lovelock’s lab. She’d had a dog as a child, but it had got sick and her father, a cold man, had bashed it with a hammer to save vet costs. Lotty Lovelock was still young when she adopted that cat. She’d had a string of relationships with older men, the last of whom was her own post-doc supervisor. After she became famous, she never dated again, but she was wholly dedicated to that cat.
In the end, after it died, Doctor Lotty Lovelock didn’t last much longer.