With Valentine’s day approaching, I thought I’d research what exactly happens in our brain when we Love. I started by asking my kids (who are 11 and 8) to define love, and they both said, it’s something you “feel”. So is love an emotion?
According to science, emotion is just one part. This isn’t to take away the allure of love; it’s actually an amazing concept that is more than just a feeling. And when you see how it affects our behaviour, you may think differently about how you view love.
Love. You either have a deep and connected feeling towards the word or think more about its pleasure. What happened the last time you “felt” love. Perhaps you felt euphoria, a loss of appetite, excitement, hyperactivity or even the decreased need for sleep. Love in the brain affects all those things.
So, what is love?
Neuroscientist’s who study the inner workings of the brain, the mechanics of neurons, and their connections, define love as “a complex mental state involving basic and complex emotions [including] cognitive, rewarding and goal-directed behavioural components” (Cacioppo & Cacioppo 2015).
Goal-directed behavioural components. Think about this quote:
“Do you what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life.”
This is the motivation piece of love. This motivation component leads to the goal-directed behaviour component. For example, have you ever had a strong emotion to be with someone, which in turn had you making decisions to take actions (maybe even actions you wouldn’t usually take) to go and be with that person? I have…. (Embarrassing story alert!!)
I remember being in University in New Hampshire when I met a guy skiing. He lived in New Jersey and was only up for the long weekend. I thought we had an amazing weekend together. I felt a strong pull (let’s call it love-at-first-sight) and I just wanted to be with him. After a week of talking on the phone with him, writing in my diary about him, and thinking about him, I did something I normally would never do. I grabbed my roommate and drove 12 hours the following weekend down to New Jersey to surprise him and hang out. Let’s say; it didn’t end well. For him, there was never a feeling of “love”. What my research has found, discussed below, is that he was most likely feeling “lust”.
But what about other situations of love? For example, loving a child, loving your job, or loving the experience of say, skydiving! Along with the motivation and goal-directed components, what else is going on? How does the emotional side of love fit in?
The Unconscious Side of Love
Love relies on both chemical interactions to derive the motivation and goal-directed piece of love. Still, it also relies on a neuronal process to bring that “feeling” of love to our consciousness’s surface. So, what’s going on in our brain before we’re even aware that we’re experiencing love?
The Chemicals of Love
When we experience the start of a romantic relationship, research explains that we are “dominated by intense, often volatile rewards” (Mendius, Kornfield and Siegel, 2009). The reward network is activated by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in how we feel pleasure.
As a relationship moves into a more stable partnership, oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social bonding and reproduction, is more prevalent.
Finally, those long-term couples, deeply in love, experience “ongoing tickles of dopamine” which keeps the pleasure areas in the brain stimulated for both partners (Schechner 2008).
Unconsciously, our brain chemicals are working with us to develop the type of love we fell. But how does this work?
The Mechanisms of Love in the Brain
A study done in 2007, which was one of the first studies of its kind, utilised the fMRI (functional MRI) technique to study “subliminal love primes”. I had no idea what this meant when I first read it. So, I had to do a bit of research.
Here’s what I figured out:
The word subliminal means, not obvious or conscious, not perceived.
The word priming, refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli, resulting from prior exposure to related visual or audio messages (Barutchu A., Spence C., Humphreys G.W. 2018)
So, subliminal priming occurs when exposed to stimuli below the threshold of conscious perception detection. (Elgendi, M., Kumar, P., Barbic, S., Howard, N., Abbott, D., & Cichocki, A. (2018).
“Subliminal love primes” are considered to be both a concept in itself as well as one of the motivational factors in love, but they are the unconscious aspect.
The 2007 findings suggest that subliminal priming is involved in utilising “brain areas involved in abstract representations of others and the self” in addition to the motivation circuits. (Ortigue, S., et al 2007.)
This study provided essential clues to understanding how emotion and motivation systems work in the brain, but it also suggests how unconscious desire (our wants) may play a role. The study’s conclusion explained that further work needed to be done distinguishing the different types of love – for example, passion versus lust – or the type of love we feel for a partner or child versus our best friend of twenty years.
Well, I found some research, published nearly 13 years later, helping to explain further how love is a motivator and goal-driven concept.
Love Versus Lust
Remember my really embarrassing story of misinterpreted “love”? Well, there’s a reason. In a 2015 paper, scientists demonstrated that different aspects of love, for instance, passionate love versus lust, have different neural pathways. Passionate love has been found to involve our motivated and goal-directed thoughts and actions based around growing old together with a significant other (Cacioppo & Cacioppo 2015). This is similar to the findings in the chemical differences of love mentioned above. I like here that there is a time element to passionate love. In contrast, lust is more fleeting in nature, more focused on the element of desire and immediate pleasure. I think lust was evident in my embarrassing story.
Here’s the neuroscience. The 2015 study explains that the:
“posterior-to-anterior insular distinction between love and lust reinforces the neuro-functional characteristics of a posterior-to-anterior progression from interoception to an ultimate representation of all feelings (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2015).”
So, what the heck does that mean? If we break it down, it looks like this.
In the brain, the insula cortex is responsible for processing bodily sensations and is also believed to be involved in many different automated functions that keep us alive, such as taste, our immune system, our automatic and sympathetic nervous system. Three parts of the Insula make up a pathway called the “posterior-to-anterior progression”.
The progression looks like this:
- The posterior insula contributes to encoding our primary emotions (those raw emotions).
- The mid-insula contributes to the contextual integration of those emotions (giving those emotions context).
- The anterior insula then contributes to encoding our introspective awareness of our emotions and bodily states (this is what we consciously become aware of if we’re paying attention).
(Ying, X et al. (2018)
So, each part of the Insula plays a role in building the neuronal connections into a progression pathway.
This progression, however, is different between passionate love versus lust. And the authors of the study point out that it’s this difference, the fact there is a difference, that explains that love isn’t one actual pathway or network in the brain. It’s an abstract construct. Love encompasses the emotional neuronal pathway in the insula cortex, which overlaps with other brain circuits linked to reward and habit formation (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2015).
Love is a Habit in the Brain
Yes. A habit is when we do things without thinking. It’s when behaviour becomes automatic. The insula cortex is also known to affect addictive behaviours closely linked to the reward circuit where many habits are formed.
Can we tap into the abstract construct of love and possibly utilise what we already know, what we already feel to understand, and perhaps modify our behaviour? Can we apply these neuroscience findings of the construct of love to life?
Live Your Love
By looking at the basics of the “posterior-to-anterior progression”, perhaps we could apply the progression steps to our thinking to help us live Love.
- The projection starts with raw emotion.
- Then context is added.
- Next, we think (introspection) about the combination of emotion and context.
- Then we link it with motivation and goal-directed behaviour.
What if we applied this same process to our thinking?
Neuroscience has shown us that there are overlapping pathways that make up the construct of “love” and although we may not fully understand how they work in the mind, we know some important aspects.
We know that love comprises emotion, desire, motivation, goal-directed behaviours, reward and habit formation. The construct of Love has also been shown to emphasise stress-reducing and health-promoting potentials (Ortigue, S et al. 2007).
So, what if we start with our emotion? When you begin a task, how do you feel about it? Is this a raw emotion that needs to be moulded?
What context can we wrap around it to make it motivational or goal-directed?
Looking at the task, can you reflect on your subliminal primers and see what’s pushing you forward? Or can you reflect on the abstract representations of others or your SELF that may be playing a role in your attitude toward a task? Perhaps these questions can showcase your thinking more clearly to help guide your behaviour.
Perhaps if we attribute these new thoughts to our tasks, we may be able to directly influence the chemicals of love to fire so that we experience that feel-good feeling of love in all that we do.
Love is good for us, so why let love guide you in life.
Barutchu A., Spence C., Humphreys G.W. Multisensory enhancement elicited by unconscious visual stimuli. Exp. Brain Res. 2018;236:409–417. doi: 10.1007/s00221–017–5140-z
Cacioppo, S., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Demystifying the Neuroscience of Love. Emotion Review, 8(2), 108–109. doi:10.1177/1754073915594432
Elgendi, M., Kumar, P., Barbic, S., Howard, N., Abbott, D., & Cichocki, A. (2018). Subliminal Priming — State of the Art and Future Perspectives. Behavioral Sciences, 8(6), 54. doi:10.3390/bs8060054
Mendius, R., Kornfield, J. and Siegel, D., 2009. Buddha’s Brain. [S.I.]: New Harbinger Publications.
Ortigue, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., de C. Hamilton, A. and Grafton, S., 2007. The Neural Basis of Love as a Subliminal Prime: An Event-related Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(7), pp.1218–1230.
Ying, X., Luo, J., Chiu, C., Wu, Y., Xu, Y., & Fan, J. (2018). Functional Dissociation of the Posterior and Anterior Insula in Moral Disgust. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00860