I you: meet the NYU professor whose love course is becoming a phenomenon
By Paul Willis
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
Dr Megan Poe has been obsessed with the subject of love since childhood – and now her pet topic is blossoming into a mini-phenomenon. The 42-year-old psychiatrist and associate professor teaches an undergraduate course on love, which she designed at New York University. Its success has been incredible, with the class proving so popular among students it tripled in size in just two years.
As well as her academic work, Poe runs a private therapy practice in downtown Manhattan. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three children.
You teach a course on love at New York University. Can you describe it?
The class is called “Love Actually”. It tries to pack into one semester as much as possible on the human experience of love. The architecture of the course moves in two psychological directions: horizontally and vertically. The vertical trajectory expands out from the individual to encompass family love, collective love, and then universal love. The horizontal trajectory looks at the types of loving relationships you encounter across a lifespan. Basically, it’s the class I would have loved to take.
How did the course come about?
I was asked to give a lecture on “Love and Intimacy” at NYU and afterwards some students came up and asked if there was a course on the subject. Based on their interest, I began to design one with the help of three child psychiatry fellows, and I quickly realized I already had a lot of the course material. I’d been collecting it my whole life, in fact. The course is run out of NYU’s child and adolescent mental health studies department, the largest undergraduate child development program in the country. They have classes on all different aspects of the psyche – there’s a class on happiness, for example, and another on sleep.
The course leans heavily on the work of Erich Fromm, the psychologist best known for his 1956 book The Art of Loving. Why is his work so foundational to this course?
The Art of Loving is a perfect jumping-off point for an academic course on love because it approaches love as something that’s learnable. It presents this idea that love is an art and that like any art form you can practice getting better at it over time. It sort of debunks the romantic idea of love as something we acquire and shows it instead as a faculty we can develop – as a verb rather than a noun. It also identifies all the different versions of love one encounters in life and breaks them down in this really clear way.
Which other notable writers and books are on your reading list?
At its core, it’s a psychology class, but often the best way to understand psychological phenomena is through great art, where the psychology inhabits the artwork on a kind of cellular level. So we look at poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Hayden Carruth. We also study Romeo and Juliet as a way to explore the intensity and emotional surges of adolescent love.
Letter Seven of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a beautiful summation of two different forms of love: immature love and mature love. As Rilke sees it, in immature love, there’s a merger that happens, a fusion where you don’t know where you end and the other person begins. You see this in new relationships sometimes where one partner says, “I want to do what you want to do,” and you get the sense that they’ve forfeited their own identity somehow. In the letter, this is contrasted with mature love where there’s an ability to be in the self and at the same time be with another. What Fromm calls “standing in love” as opposed to “falling in love’.
To understand how romantic love changes over our lifetime we read Steven Mitchell’s book Can Love Last? We also look at the theories of the child psychologist Donald Winnicott to get a better idea of how love operates in early childhood. And at Aziz Ansari.
Aziz Ansari, the actor and comedian?
Yes. He wrote this great book with the sociology professor Eric Klinenberg that investigates the difficulty of finding love in the age of dating apps.
I imagine your undergraduates have a lot to say on this subject.
Absolutely. This is the era of what I call “the infinite swipe”, so we talk about that and its impact on human connection. The way they often describe it: there’s a lot of “hooking up” but less partnering. They might say they’re plagued by choice, which makes it harder to get beneath the surface, from the outer life to the inner life of a relationship.
Technology, while widening the net of possibility, can also create confusion. My students will describe getting lost in the weeds of a text exchange. They’ll get a text from someone they like and forward it to a friend to get their opinion on what they think the guy meant. This friend will forward it to another friend and before long it’s become this whole rabbinical interpretation of the original message.
But even when they meet face-to-face, the technology can inhibit the search for deeper connection. They’ll find they’re interrupting their flow to check their social media feeds. That’s one of the things that The Art of Loving really emphasizes: that to love well, you need to be present.
What forms of love do you look at?
We look at parent-infant love; friendship; self-love; love of things (our passions); love between a mentor and a student or the kind of love that can exist in therapy – a kind of loving, holding environment that allows the person to self-actualise. A big part of the class is expanding students’ ideas of what love is and what’s contained inside that concept. Romantic love gets its air time, too.
Do you look at how other cultures view love? Are there any cultures where the concept doesn’t exist?
We look at how different cultures have different words around the subject that can change the way love is experienced. In Japanese, for example, there’s a concept called amae, a kind of affectionate indulgence of the other, which doesn’t exist in the west at all. In other cases the differences are very subtle. My Dutch friend explained to me that when you say “I love you” in Dutch you’re really saying, “I love of you” and adding that bit of linguistic padding reduces the level of intimacy and, for her, makes it feel less direct.
Can you explain the role meditation plays in the course?
At the end of the semester, I lead them through a loving-kindness meditation. But a bigger influence on the course than meditation itself are the ideas behind it – primarily that as you develop your ability to be more present, you expand your capacity to love.
Research in neuroscience shows that falling in love can become addictive because of its effect on the brain’s pleasure centers. Does the course explore the shadow side of love?
Yes. We look at the obsessiveness you sometimes find in adolescent love and how that connects to neuroscience and the hormonal surges that are going on in the body. We look, too, at grief and heartache. These darker aspects – shadow sides – are still love, and for that reason not wholly negative. I sometimes show them a clip from Louis CK’s TV show Louie. In the clip, Louis CK’s telling this old guy in his building about how he’s heartbroken because his lover has just left him to go live abroad. The older guy calls him lucky, says that after all these years, he would kill to have his heart broken – the argument being that even the pain of heartbreak is somehow preferable to not feeling anything.
Some scientists have theorised that love has a biological basis, that it serves the evolutionary advantage of maintaining parental bonds. This seems a rather drab summation of the most powerful emotion we feel. But do they have a point?
Certainly there are all kinds of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals that play a huge part in the mother-child attachment. But that’s only one layer of a much larger story. A theory like that wouldn’t explain why parents and children continue their bond into adulthood. It also wouldn’t explain grief, which makes no sense from an evolutionary standpoint yet it’s a phenomenon you see throughout the natural world. I think our human nature is to love and it’s much larger than just reproducing ourselves.
What do you think is the biggest misconception we have about love?
That it is primarily romantic love. There is a cultural hyper-focus on romantic love that can blind you to the fact that love is everywhere all of the time. The other big misconception is confusing self-love for selfishness. I spend a lot of time dissecting the differences between those two things, which are actually opposites.