What Is Love?

Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship

What Is Love?

by Katherine Wu
figures by Tito Adhikary

In 1993, Haddaway asked the world, “What is Love?” I’m not sure if he ever got his answer – but today, you can have yours.

Sort of.

Scientists in fields ranging from anthropology to neuroscience have been asking this same question (albeit less eloquently) for decades. It turns out the science behind love is both simpler and more complex than we might think.

Google the phrase “biology of love” and you’ll get answers that run the gamut of accuracy.

Needless to say, the scientific basis of love is often sensationalized, and as with most science, we don’t know enough to draw firm conclusions about every piece of the puzzle.

What we do know, however, is that much of love can be explained by chemistry. So, if there’s really a “formula” for love, what is it, and what does it mean?

Total Eclipse of the Brain

Think of the last time you ran into someone you find attractive. You may have stammered, your palms may have sweated; you may have said something incredibly asinine and tripped spectacularly while trying to saunter away (or is that just me?).

And chances are, your heart was thudding in your chest. It’s no surprise that, for centuries, people thought love (and most other emotions, for that matter) arose from the heart.

As it turns out, love is all about the brain – which, in turn, makes the rest of your body go haywire.

According to a team of scientists led by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers, romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each category is characterized by its own set of hormones stemming from the brain (Table 1).

Table 1: Love can be distilled into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Though there are overlaps and subtleties to each, each type is characterized by its own set of hormones. Testosterone and estrogen drive lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate attachment.

Let’s Get Chemical

Lust is driven by the desire for sexual gratification. The evolutionary basis for this stems from our need to reproduce, a need shared among all living things. Through reproduction, organisms pass on their genes, and thus contribute to the perpetuation of their species.

The hypothalamus of the brain plays a big role in this, stimulating the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen from the testes and ovaries (Figure 1).

While these chemicals are often stereotyped as being “male” and “female,” respectively, both play a role in men and women. As it turns out, testosterone increases libido in just about everyone.

The effects are less pronounced with estrogen, but some women report being more sexually motivated around the time they ovulate, when estrogen levels are highest.

Figure 1: A: The testes and ovaries secrete the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, driving sexual desire. B and C: Dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin are all made in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls many vital functions as well as emotion. D: Several of the regions of the brain that affect love. Lust and attraction shut off the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which includes rational behavior.

Love is its Own Reward

Meanwhile, attraction seems to be a distinct, though closely related, phenomenon.

While we can certainly lust for someone we are attracted to, and vice versa, one can happen without the other.

Attraction involves the brain pathways that control “reward” behavior (Figure 1), which partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating and even all-consuming.

Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus, is a particularly well-publicized player in the brain’s reward pathway – it’s released when we do things that feel good to us. In this case, these things include spending time with loved ones and having sex.

High levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric, even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia – which means you actually can be so “in love” that you can’t eat and can’t sleep.

In fact, norepinephrine, also known as noradrenalin, may sound familiar because it plays a large role in the fight or flight response, which kicks into high gear when we’re stressed and keeps us alert.

Brain scans of people in love have actually shown that the primary “reward” centers of the brain, including the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus, fire crazy when people are shown a photo of someone they are intensely attracted to, compared to when they are shown someone they feel neutral towards ( an old high school acquaintance).

Finally, attraction seems to lead to a reduction in serotonin, a hormone that’s known to be involved in appetite and mood. Interestingly, people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also have low levels of serotonin, leading scientists to speculate that this is what underlies the overpowering infatuation that characterizes the beginning stages of love.

The Friend Zone

Last but not least, attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships.

While lust and attraction are pretty much exclusive to romantic entanglements, attachment mediates friendships, parent-infant bonding, social cordiality, and many other intimacies as well.

The two primary hormones here appear to be oxytocin and vasopressin (Figure 1).

Oxytocin is often nicknamed “cuddle hormone” for this reason. dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth.

This may seem a very strange assortment of activities – not all of which are necessarily enjoyable – but the common factor here is that all of these events are precursors to bonding.

It also makes it pretty clear why having separate areas for attachment, lust, and attraction is important: we are attached to our immediate family, but those other emotions have no business there (and let’s just say people who have muddled this up don’t have the best track record).

Love Hurts

This all paints quite the rosy picture of love: hormones are released, making us feel good, rewarded, and close to our romantic partners.

But that can’t be the whole story: love is often accompanied by jealousy, erratic behavior, and irrationality, along with a host of other less-than-positive emotions and moods.

It seems that our friendly cohort of hormones is also responsible for the downsides of love.

Dopamine, for instance, is the hormone responsible for the vast majority of the brain’s reward pathway – and that means controlling both the good and the bad. We experience surges of dopamine for our virtues and our vices.

In fact, the dopamine pathway is particularly well studied when it comes to addiction. The same regions that light up when we’re feeling attraction light up when drug addicts take cocaine and when we binge eat sweets.

For example, cocaine maintains dopamine signaling for much longer than usual, leading to a temporary “high.” In a way, attraction is much an addiction to another human being.

Similarly, the same brain regions light up when we become addicted to material goods as when we become emotionally dependent on our partners (Figure 2). And addicts going into withdrawal are not un love-struck people craving the company of someone they cannot see.

Figure 2: Dopamine, which runs the reward pathways in our brain, is great in moderate doses, helping us enjoy food, exciting events, and relationships. However, we can push the dopamine pathway too far when we become addicted to food or drugs. Similarly, too much dopamine in a relationship can underlie unhealthy emotional dependence on our partners. And while healthy levels of oxytocin help us bond and feel warm and fuzzy towards our companions, elevated oxytocin can also fuel prejudice.

The story is somewhat similar for oxytocin: too much of a good thing can be bad. Recent studies on party drugs such as MDMA and GHB shows that oxytocin may be the hormone behind the feel-good, sociable effects these chemicals produce.

These positive feelings are taken to an extreme in this case, causing the user to dissociate from his or her environment and act wildly and recklessly. Furthermore, oxytocin’s role as a “bonding” hormone appears to help reinforce the positive feelings we already feel towards the people we love.

That is, as we become more attached to our families, friends, and significant others, oxytocin is working in the background, reminding us why we these people and increasing our affection for them. While this may be a good things for monogamy, such associations are not always positive.

For example, oxytocin has also been suggested to play a role in ethnocentrism, increasing our love for people in our already-established cultural groups and making those un us seem more foreign (Figure 2). Thus, dopamine, oxytocin can be a bit of a double-edged sword.

And finally, what would love be without embarrassment? Sexual arousal (but not necessarily attachment) appears to turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex (Figure 2). In short, love makes us dumb. Have you ever done something when you were in love that you later regretted? Maybe not. I’d ask a certain star-crossed Shakespearean couple, but it’s a little late for them.

So, in short, there is sort of a “formula” for love. However, it’s a work in progress, and there are many questions left unanswered. And, as we’ve realized by now, it’s not just the hormone side of the equation that’s complicated.

Love can be both the best and worst thing for you – it can be the thing that gets us up in the morning, or what makes us never want to wake up again.

I’m not sure I could define “love” for you if I kept you here for another ten thousand pages.

In the end, everyone is capable of defining love for themselves. And, for better or for worse, if it’s all hormones, maybe each of us can have “chemistry” with just about anyone. But whether or not it goes further is still up to the rest of you.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Katherine Wu is a third-year graduate student at Harvard University. She loves science with all of her brain.

Further Reading

  1. For a long-form human interest story on love, see National Geographic’s coverage of “True Love”
  2. For a very in-depth (and well-done!) introduction to the brain and its many, many chemicals, check out the NIH’s Brain Basics page
  3. For the New York Times’ take on falling in love with anyone, ask these 36 questions

Источник: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/

Love — GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog

What Is Love?

Love is complex.

A mix of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth, and respect for another person.

Love can also be used to apply to non-human animals, to principles, and to religious beliefs. For example, a person might say he or she loves his or her dog, loves freedom, or loves God.

What Is Love?

Love has been a favored topic of philosophers, poets, writers, and scientists for generations, and different people and groups have often fought about its definition.

While most people agree that love implies strong feelings of affection, there are many disagreements about its precise meaning, and one person’s “I love you” might mean something quite different than another’s.

Some possible definitions of love include:

  • A willingness to prioritize another’s well-being or happiness above your own.
  • Extreme feelings of attachment, affection, and need.
  • Dramatic, sudden feelings of attraction and respect.
  • A fleeting emotion of care, affection, and .
  • A choice to commit to helping, respecting, and caring for another, such as in marriage or when having a child.
  • Some combination of the above emotions.

There has been much debate about whether love is a choice, is something that is permanent or fleeting, and whether the love between family members and spouses is biologically programmed or culturally indoctrinated.

Love may vary from person to person and culture to culture. Each of the debates about love may be accurate in some time and someplace.

For example, in some instances, love may be a choice while in others it may feel uncontrollable.

Love versus Lust

Especially in the early stages of a relationship, it can be difficult to tell the difference between love and lust. Both are associated with physical attraction and an intoxicating rush of feel-good chemicals, coupled with an often overwhelming desire to be closer to another person, but only one is long-lasting: love.

Love is something that is cultivated between two people and grows over time, through getting to know him or her and experiencing life’s many ups and downs together. It involves commitment, time, mutual trust, and acceptance.

Lust, on the other hand, has to do with the sex-driven sensations that draw people toward one another initially and is fueled primarily by the urge to procreate. Characterized by sex hormones and idealistic infatuation, lust blurs our ability to see a person for who he or she truly is, and consequently, it may or may not lead to a long-term relationship.

For instance, Lana is in a committed relationship with Steve and her sexual desire for him is waning. She loves and cares for him, but she finds herself feeling restless and dissatisfied with their physical relationship.

When she meets Brendan, she experiences instant feelings of attraction and longing. The chemical messengers in her brain start sending signals to pursue this new man, even though she does not know anything about him other than how his presence makes her feel physically.

Instead of working to improve intimacy with her current partner, she is overcome by lust for someone new.

The ideal intimate relationship scenario, some might say, involves a balanced combination of love and lust. After all, lusting after someone is typically an important early phase of a long-term partnership, and reigniting that initial spark is a practice worth cultivating for committed couples.

Love and Mental Health

Although almost no one can agree on a single definition of love, most people do agree that love plays a significant role in both physical and psychological well-being. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of love. Love’s role in mental health is far-reaching, but some examples include:

  • The fact that babies who are not shown love and affection in the form of frequent holding and cuddling may be developmentally delayed or ill.
  • Feeling unloved is strongly correlated with feelings of low self-esteem and depression.
  • People who both feel loved by others and who report loving other people tend to be happier.
  • Love can play a role in long-term health, and feeling emotionally connected may help increase immunity.


  1. Anonymous. (September 2, 2002). How to tell whether it’s love, or lust. Jet 102.11, 12-14. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ez.trlib.info/docview/199970680/1833AF113A8E4DCAPQ/3?accountid=1229
  2. Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Wilson, G. D., & McLaughlin, C. (2001). The science of love. London: Fusion Press.

Last Updated:08-1-2020

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Источник: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/love

10 People Explain What Love Means to Them

What Is Love?
 Written by Writer’s Corps member Aditi Nair

For some people, love can be used to describe almost anything. OMG, I love this iced latte! This sweater is amazing, I love it.

But, what about romantic relationships? For couples in long-term relationships, love means loyalty and commitment but for college students in the center of their first real relationship, love may feel messy and complicated.

It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum, whether your love life is blissful or nonexistent, it’s clear that everyone has an opinion on love and what it means in a healthy relationship.

In the hopes of coming to a more collective understanding of love, we asked 10 people in different stages of their relationship to explain what love means to them. Here’s what they had to say (their answers may surprise you).

Love is Security

“For me, love is the most secure feeling. Love is having a companion, best friend, lover, partner, sounding board, cheerleader, advisor, and cuddle buddy through every avenue in the journey of life.”

– Ash D. 

Love is Indescribable

“Love is a sentiment not able to be characterized by words.”

– Kurt S. 

Love is About Give-and-Take

“Completely opening up and sharing your feelings and life with them daily, that’s what constitutes a healthy relationship. But, it must be mutual. If a particular area is lacking on either side of the relationship, it makes it unideal and unhealthy.”

– Dylan P.

Love is Respect

“To me, a healthy relationship is built on respect for one another. Each person understands the commitment they are making to the other person.”

– Skylar M.

Love is Being In-Sync

“A healthy relationship could describe a plethora of different types of relationships, but the most important aspect of being in a relationship is being in-sync.

Whether you both talk through every hour of your waking day, or whether you agree that you’re both busy and you’ll just talk on the phone at the end of every day, as long as you both are in agreement, that is what’s important.”

– Zane P.

Love is Commitment

“The key to success in a healthy relationship with someone is actually the terrifying but necessary effort of commitment. Being there for someone is what a real relationship needs.

When we neglect to put in the effort is when things don’t work out with someone that could have been perfect for us.

If you put in that extra effort for someone that can reciprocate it, love can be the greatest feeling one can ever feel.”

– Adam B.

Love is Vulnerability

“Because love is scary, it’s basically giving someone a map of all your flaws and imperfections and putting faith in them to not abuse that power. And that can be so beautiful; it makes you do the hardest thing a human could ever do, be vulnerable.”

– Alex G.

Love is “Growing Together”

“Things won’t always be great. Your partner may do things that will make you angry, but if you are willing to not look at it as obstacles, but rather as opportunities for growth, then you are truly in love.”

– Jared B.

Love is Knowing Your S.O.’s Love Language

“Loving better comes from knowing what makes the other person happy. For him its back scratches and hugs. For me, it’s a verbal “I appreciate you” or “You look pretty.” No matter what it is, we’ve learned to love each other better because we know what makes each other happy, and we make the effort to find new ways to make each other happy.”

– Vanessa S.

Love is Healthy Communication

“When I say communicate, I don’t mean text. I mean calling and Facetiming. From experience, text creates so many opportunities for misunderstanding, and ultimately, unnecessary conflicts and trust issues. So, if I have anything to say about healthy relationships, it is to trust and communicate.”

– Vanessa S.

Love is Equality

“A healthy relationship, in my eyes, is when two people are equal in a relationship. We equally love, we equally respect, and we equally care.”

– Amber H.

Love is Accepting their Flaws

We’re human beings, we’re never going to be the same, but being patient and accepting each other’s flaws is something that never stops us from growing with one another.”

– Sasha M.

Love is Patience

We aren’t always going to agree. Testing each other’s patience and still coming home to love, kindness, and respect is a feeling I never want to disappear.”

– Preston N.

Check out more tips and advice about healthy relationships

Источник: https://www.joinonelove.org/learn/10-people-explain-what-love-means-to-them/

What is love – and is it all in the mind?

What Is Love?

We crave romantic love nothing else, we’ll make unimaginable sacrifices for it and it can take us from a state of ecstasy to deepest despair. But what’s going on inside our heads when we fall in love?

The American anthropologist Helen Fisher describes the obsessive attachment we experience in love as “someone camping out in your head”.

In a groundbreaking experiment, Fisher and colleagues at Stony Brook University in New York state put 37 people who were madly in love into an MRI scanner. Their work showed that romantic love causes a surge of activity in brain areas that are rich in dopamine, the brain’s feelgood chemical.

These included the caudate nucleus, part of the reward system, and an ancient brain area called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. “[The VTA] is part of the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, motivation, focus and craving,” Fisher said in a 2014 talk on the subject.

Similar brain areas light up during the rush of euphoria after taking cocaine.

MRI scans of the brains of those in love found surges of activity of dopamine. Photograph: Daisy-Daisy/Alamy

During the early stages of love, the emotional excitement (or some might say stress) raises the body’s cortisol levels, causing a racing heart, butterflies in our stomach and inconveniently sweaty palms. Other chemicals in play are oxytocin, which deepens feelings of attachment, and vasopressin, which has been linked to trust, empathy and sexual monogamy.

So it’s a total eclipse of the head, not the heart?

Actually … in a case of science imitating poetry, the heart has been found to influence the way we experience emotion.

Our brain and heart are known to be in close communication. When faced with a threat or when we spot the object of our affection in a crowded room, our heart races. But recently, scientists have turned the tables and shown that feedback from our heart to our brain also influences what we are feeling.

What the heart is doing can influence how strongly our brain processes emotion. Photograph: Borja Suarez/Reuters

One study, led by Prof Sarah Garfinkel of the University of Sussex, showed that cardiovascular arousal – the bit of the heart’s cycle when it is working hardest – can intensify feelings of fear and anxiety. In this study, people were asked to identify scary or neutral images while their heartbeats were tracked.

Garfinkel found they reacted quicker to the scary images when their heart was contracting and pumping blood, compared with when it was relaxing.

Her work suggests that electrical signals from blood vessels around the heart feed back into brain areas involved in emotional processing, influencing how strongly we think we’re feeling something.

Finally, in what must be a contender for one of the most romantic (or mushy) scientific insights to date, couples have been shown to have a tendency to synchronise heartbeats and breathing.

Why is it a crazy little thing?

Love is merely a madness, Shakespeare wrote. But it is only recently that scientists have offered an explanation for why being in love might inspire unusual behaviour.

Box 1

Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pisa, approached this question after carrying out research showing that people with obsessive compulsive disorder have, on average, lower levels of the brain chemical serotonin in their blood. She wondered whether a similar imbalance could underlie romantic infatuation.

She recruited people with OCD, healthy controls and 20 people who had embarked on a romantic relationship within the previous six months (it was also specified that they should not have had sexual intercourse and that at least four hours a day were spent thinking of the partner).

Both the OCD group and the volunteers who were in love had significantly lower levels of serotonin, and the authors concluded “that being in love literally induces a state which is not normal”.

When the “in love” group were followed up six months later, most of their serotonin levels had returned to normal.

A separate study found that people in love have much lower activity in their frontal cortex – an area of the brain crucial to reason and judgment – when they thought of their loved one. Scientists have speculated an evolutionary reason for this which could be termed the “beer goggles” theory: the suspension of reason makes coupling, and hence procreation, far more ly.

So all in love is fair – regardless of sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation has several components, including behaviour, identity, attraction and arousal.

Many scientific studies have been who people say they are attracted to, and surveys typically find that same-sex attraction accounts for fewer than 5% of the population, and this figure has remained relatively stable over time. But people’s behaviour and the labels they use to describe their sexual identity appear to be influenced to a greater degree by social and cultural factors.

For instance, in the UK there has been a sharp rise in the proportion of women reporting having had a sexual experience with another woman, from 1.8% in 1991 to 7.9% in 2013, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which is carried out each decade.

As with any scientific investigation, the way questions are framed also makes a difference to the answer. So studies that ask people to pick between two or three categories would miss any more subtle gradations.

As Kinsey wrote in 1948: “The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behaviour, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.”

Women are considerably more ly than men to rate themselves on a continuum of sexuality, Photograph: Sam Edwards/Getty Images/Caiaimage

There is growing support for the idea of a continuum, in particular for women who are considerably more ly than men to rate themselves as intermediate categories such as “mostly heterosexual” (10% v 4%), when given those options.

It’s worth noting that a 2011 study found no differences between brain systems regulating romantic love in homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Is there a gay gene?

It has been known for decades that sexual orientation is partly heritable in men, studies of identical and fraternal twins. In the 1990s, a specific region of the X chromosome was linked to male homosexuality and more recent two specific genes have been found to be more common in gay men.

However, the genetic factors that have been identified so far only play a small part in determining sexuality – not all men who have these genes are gay. Research on the genetic basis of female sexuality lags behind, which some have attributed to it being more difficult to study. Others might conclude that there has simply been less effort to understand this topic.

There are other biological factors at play as well. One of the most robust findings in sexual-orientation research is the fraternal-birth-order effect: gay men tend to have a greater number of older brothers compared with straight men.

This is a biological influence rather than a social one and is a big effect, increasing the odds of a man being gay by roughly a third. In women, there is evidence that pre-natal hormone exposure can make a difference to sexual orientation.

Let’s get chemical: do humans give off pheromones?

Pheromones are chemical signals that are used to communicate and alter the behaviour of others. The first pheromone discovered, in the 1950s, was a substance called bombykol that female silkworms emit to attract males. Ever since then, the search has been on – not least by perfume manufacturers – to find a human equivalent. There have been some tentative claims.

A pheromone present in male pigs, androstenone, has also been found in the human armpit. Photograph: Joe Pepler/Rex Features

For instance, a known pig pheromone, androstenone, has been found in the human armpit. When female pigs on heat get a whiff of the substance, which is found in boars’ saliva, they adopt the mating stance.

However, there is not yet any convincing evidence for real-life “Lynx effect” chemicals in men and women. The strongest contender to date for a human pheromone is a chemical secreted from glands in the nipples of breastfeeding mothers.

When wafted under any sleeping baby’s nose, the child responds with sucking and rooting behaviour.

Your cheating heart – how uncommon is it?

Cheating is widely disapproved of, but is not that uncommon. According to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, men are on average more ly than women to be unfaithful – 20% of men and 13% of women reported that they’ve had sex with someone else while married.

Box 2

However, the figures shifted across age ranges, with women in the youngest age range (18-29) being marginally more ly (11% v 10%) to have cheated, with the widest gender gap in the 80+ range where 24% of men and just 6% of women said they had been unfaithful.

Recently scientists have shown that some people may be genetically predisposed to being unfaithful. One study of nearly 7,400 Finnish twins and their siblings found a significant link between the vasopressin gene and infidelity in women.

Another study, by scientists at the Kinsey Institute, in Indiana, showed that certain variants of the gene for the dopamine receptor were more ly to be unfaithful and also more ly to be repeatedly unfaithful.

Further reading

Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love: Helen Fisher

Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Semir Zeki

Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare

The Bible – 1 Corinthians

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Источник: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/feb/11/what-is-love-and-is-it-all-in-the-mind

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