Psychiatrist, Writer, Commentator

Digital love

Tuesday, 22nd April 2014

I recently saw the movie Her. Without giving too much away – it’s the story of a recently heart-broken guy who gets a new operating system (or OS) for his computer. The OS uses voice, not a keyboard and screen. The OS is clever and has the ability to learn, and the voice of the OS is, well … sexy! Love ensues.

Her - cast and creators aphrodite-in-nyc, CC BY

When art shines a torch, it’s fun to ponder whether science has an answer. Can you fall in love with a voice in the absence of a body?

By love I mean true romantic love – complete with lust, sharing, intimacy, caring, joy, sacrifice, dreams of a future and aching when apart.

Professor of love?

I doubt there is such a thing as an expert on love. If you wanted to understand love, where would you turn?

Plenty of writers have had a go. Literature is rife with stories of falling in love. Musicians remind us of the many emotions love can conjure. Scientists tend to focus on the biology and psychologists seem to thrash around describing love from various perspectives without ever really getting a sense of the whole.

Love is merely a madness

– William Shakespeare

I know I am confused. I think I know what love feels like, but I’m not confident – my views have changed about every decade of my life. Who knows what I’ll think ten years from now?

By the way, the movie is excellent – the story is far more nuanced than the typical Hollywood trash. The performances are understated and authentic, and there is an atmosphere to the movie that makes the whole thing far more believable than you’d ever expect from the story outline alone.

Love is … ?

Back to the question at hand – can you fall in love with something that has no body? In a culture that often objectifies love by focussing on attractiveness and physical beauty, this is especially interesting.

I can’t find any research that directly answers the question. I know there are scattered cases of people falling in love with objects – like cars and the Eiffel Tower – it’s called Object Sexuality or objectophillia, but quite frankly it’s as rare as hens teeth, and I struggle to believe it’s a real thing.

I’ve also heard of people falling in love and never meeting, which is effectively falling for just a voice (or letter/email writer). Examples are pen pals and romances with prisoners serving life – but in each case the parties know there is a real person somewhere, and so there is always the goal or hope of meeting. In Her there was no such hope.

Love, amor, aimer, amore - Camdiluv/Flickr

Definitions of love add very little to the topic. I tried the Oxford dictionary (asking the English for a definition of love – hilarious, I know, but I can’t read Italian): “A strong feeling of affection.” Useless.

Sigmund & Co.

Freud wrote reams on the subject of love, but quite frankly, you would have to devote you life (and love) to the man’s writings to make any sense of it. He did describe four conditions of love summarised here as: the need for an injured third party (meaning you must be stealing your loved one away from someone else), loose morals (there must be some doubt as to your partner’s devotion to you), overvaluing the loved one (you mistakenly believe they are the only one for you), and a sense of rescuing the beloved (they will fail miserably without you).

Interestingly, all four elements were present in the movie – so Freud doesn’t exclude falling in love with a body-less voice.

More accessible and traditional psychological concepts of love such as those of Zick Rubin proposed that romantic love is made up of three elements: attachment, caring and intimacy. This makes more intuitive sense. Ruben would argue that attachment in particular has a physical element. This would suggest true love must include the presence of another body – someone to touch. Rather bravely, Rubin devised scales to distinguish and measure loving and liking. Oh, Science – be still, my beating heart!

When all is said and done, as far as I can tell, science and psychology cannot answer the question of whether you can fall in love with a voice. In fact science and psychology can’t really even tell us what love is, precisely, just yet. Perhaps there are some areas that science and psychology will never truly conquer. Love might be one topic best left to the writers and musicians. And for that, I think we can all be thankful.

Acknowledgement: Miriam Ercole contributed to the preparation of this column.


This article first appeared in The Conversation