Several months ago, my roommate and I were sitting in our kitchen talking about our various relationship issues. After a lengthy discussion, we finally concluded that feelings were just too complicated, and we’d rather be robots.
“But really,” my roommate pointed out, “without love, there would be no, like, books.”
At first this struck me as a pretty bold, sweeping statement, but then I thought, she’s kind of right. Most works of literature (and music, and film, and visual art) that came to my mind are about one form of love or another—love for a partner, or a child, or a place of origin. It’s a cross-cultural universal that can be a source of deep pain or immense joy, and it can dominate your mind.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have found a way to boil down an unconquerable, nebulous concept to its most boring and clinical form. Romantic love is defined as “a complex state involving erotic, cognitive, chemical, and goal-directed behavioral components.” Be still, my heart.
In terms of actual feelings, people who report being ‘in love’ describe feelings of euphoria, loss of appetite, hyperactivity, and a decreased need for sleep. Furthermore, these individuals admit to spending more than 85 percent of their waking hours thinking of their loved one—in other words, if you’re awake from 7:00AM to 10:00PM, you’d spend just under 13 hours thinking about your beloved.
Imaging studies of individuals who report being intensely ‘in love’ show activation in a number of brain regions, including the medial insula, ventral tegmental area, striatum, anterior cingulate cortex, and hippocampus. Many of these areas have been identified as part of the dopaminergic reward system—when you do something rewarding, like eating, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods these pathways in the brain and makes you feel good. Interestingly, some of the dopaminergic pathways involved in love are very similar to those implicated in addictive behavior, which may explain why love can sometimes feel like an addiction.
Also of note is a decrease of activity in the amygdala, a structure involved in fear, as well as the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that processes negative emotions—this could account for the feelings of safety and comfort around a loved one.
I know it can be pretty un-magical to think about love in terms of neurons and hormones and complicated biological processes, but isn’t it a little nice to know that feeling like a love addict doesn’t mean you’re crazy? (Even though it really is all in your head.)
Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Grafton, S.T., and Ortigue, S. 2006. The power of love on the human brain. Social Neuroscience, 1(2):90-103.
Boer, A.D., Van Buel, E.M., Ter Horst, G.J. 2012. Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affective. Neuroscience, 201:114-24.
Fisher, H.D., Aron, A., Brown, L.L. 2006. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 361:2173-86.