Last week, New York City had its first winter snowfall, and with it came to me a flurry of reflections. I started to think a lot about the passage of time – how each year seems to move at a progressively faster pace. As a child, I remember feeling that summers were endless. This year, I can barely recall the season all together.
I love nearly everything about being an adult. But, occasionally, I do miss the days of more vacant mind space. There is something to be said for the utterly simple existence of childhood — and that is the freedom to live in a persistent state of wonderment.
Having spent a fair share of time around kids as of late, I have come to envy the little ones’ ability to distill chaos. The questions children ask are often so basic that they turn profoundly philosophical in requiring answers. In my most recent literary obsession, Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds, Gemma Elwin Harris elegantly demonstrates this point. She asks thousands of kids to pose their most restless queries, and challenges highly accomplished subject matter experts to offer their responses. The result is a deeply endearing set of excerpts, making magic from some of life’s most deceptively simple phenomena.
Why is the sky blue? What are dreams? Why can’t I tickle myself? Who is God? What does dead mean? What makes a rainbow? Is Santa real? These are just a few of the questions addressed in Harris’s chronicle of wisdom. But, in my view, the ones that illicit the most illuminating and poignant explanations are those in reference to the all-engulfing mystery of love.
How do we fall in love?
Jeanette Winterson — Author
You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump.
Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)
And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.
P.S. You have to be brave.
What happens when you fall in love?
Robin Dunbar — Evolutionary Psychologist
What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle.
That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.
But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.
These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.
Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.
But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.
I was once told by a friend, “you will always be the oldest kid I know,” and at the time I had no idea how big of a compliment they were paying me. I used to think that the older we get, the more complex our lives have to become, but Gemma Harris’s book has shown me that is one big misconception. If a five-year-old can understand the components of the Doppler Effect, then a fifty-year-old can master the formula for contentment — it is that pure and childlike curiosity that keeps life refreshingly simple yet fascinating. What a shame that something so basic is so easy to forget.
No matter your age, I recommend a peek at Big Questions from Little People. It will not only entertain you but also remind you to accept life’s absurdities at face value. The best part is that a portion of the proceeds are donated to Save the Children. Go ahead, appease the kid in you, and leave the rest up to science.