Love: Is it in the Air or in Your Brain?

“Love is in the air” is a popular saying but should it be changed to love is in the brain? The feeling or emotion of love has been studied for years, yet it is the least understood behaviour. In fact, if you were to search up love in the Oxford dictionary, you’ll find that that there are several definitions for it. Some of them include:

  1. An intense feeling of deep affection.

  2. A strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone.

  3. Affectionate greetings conveyed to someone on one's behalf.

  4. A formula for ending an affectionate letter.

  5. A personified figure of love, often represented as Cupid.

While we may not completely understand love, what we we do know is that love and lust are neurobiologically correlated. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense since lust helps produce offspring and love helps to care for the offspring.

Love is Rewarding

Similar to sex, the human brain experiences pleasure from love. There are three neuromodulators that are associated with experiencing romantic love: dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. Dopamine is a primary pleasure chemical that plays a role in identifying and reinforcing rewarding/pleasurable experiences. This includes sexual arousal as well as romantic feelings. Often, sexual arousal and romance are used interchangeably but the two are very different. Although love and lust are correlated, it is still possible to have a romantic attraction towards someone without making it sexual. For instance, just looking at the face of a loved one causes a flood of dopamine into the ventral tegmental area which is part of the brain’s reward circuit.   

The other two neuromodulators, oxytocin and vasopressin, are more so related to attachment. These hormones play a key role in maternal and romantic attachment and are usually released during intimate activities such as orgasm, childbirth and breastfeeding.

Love is Blind

Love is blind may not just be a figurative statement but a literal one. We want people to love us despite the flaws that we have. Turns out, people who love you literally do not see your flaws and if they do, they do not judge them as harshly. The reason behind this is decreased activation in the frontal cortex. Your frontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning, judgement and logic but when there is decreased activation in this area, you are more relaxed and less judgemental. Essentially, your frontal cortex is engulfed with infatuation when you are in love which is why your brain turns a blind eye to imperfections.

Love is Comforting

If you’ve ever been in love then you are probably familiar with that comforting feeling you get when you are held by your partner. That comfort is not only caused by physical contact but also by decreased activation in the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain that plays an important role in emotional processing, especially with fear and anger. Basically, decreased activity in the amygdala suggests that there are reduced feelings of fear and anger which is why you feel safe and happy around your partner.

So, is Love in the Air or in the Brain?

To summarize, neuromodulators such as dopamine provide you with rewarding/elevated feelings while oxytocin and vasopressin invoke bonding behaviour as well as attachment. In addition, decreased activity in the amygdala helps you feel safe and comforted around your partner while decreased activity in the frontal cortex makes you overlook any flaws that your partner may have.

Though there are a lot of mysteries surrounding love, one thing we can surely say is that love is not just psychological or physical, but neurobiological too.

References

Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337.

Edwards, S. (n.d.). Love and the Brain. Retrieved from http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/love-and-brain

Love | Definition of love in English by Oxford Dictionaries. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/love

Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS letters, 581(14), 2575-2579.Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17531984

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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