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THE NEUROSCIENCE BEHIND LOVE

This Valentine’s season we thought we’d dive into how love works and why it matters. In a world that can feel very serious and logical, emotions are the vibrant hues enriching our days and allowing us to fully embrace life's highs and lows. Love is a force of its own, as essential to our well-being as exercise, water, and food. 

 


Across millennia, love has inspired artistic expression and captivated the curiosity of scientists and philosophers alike. While we associate it with the heart, its origins lie within our brains, where intricate neural mechanisms orchestrate our feelings. Let's take a tour of the specific brain regions involved in evoking and sustaining the emotion of love, consider the evolutionary purpose of love, and how love affects us today.




Love on the Brain

Primarily, love comes from the limbic system, our ancient brain structure. We perceive it as a reward and we feel the sensation of "falling in love". It takes many key parts within this system to make this happen.


To process emotions like pleasure, fear, and aggression, the amygdala pitches in. To keep the good feelings going and to foster attachment and motivation - we need the nucleus accumbens, a vital part of the brain's reward circuitry, to reinforce the pleasurable aspects of love.


And what would love been without forming memories - particularly our emotional experiences. The hippocampus plays a crucial role in this department and in shaping future dynamics of our relationships. dynamics.


Finally, we judge the desirability of potential mates and regulate how we react emotionally in a relationship. Doing this heavy lifting is our prefrontal cortex, especially the ventromedial part. The hormones that navigate in the prefrontal cortex also end up deactivating or turning off the neural pathways responsible for negative emotions (nucleus accumbens to amygdala) and the neural machinery responsible for critical thinking.


A Little Help from Hormones

Our hormones are also needed for social bonding and attachment. The hypothalamus orchestrates the physiological responses associated with love, by releasing hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin also play pivotal roles in our experience of love.


Dopamine is usually released while spending time with a loved one or when engaging in romantic activities. Known as the pleasure hormone, Dopamine fuels feelings of reward and motivation, like feelings of euphoria experienced during alcohol use, or cocaine use. You may be nodding if you've experienced this in the early stages of a romance. 


Serotonin influences mood regulation and emotional processing. Those fluctuations impact our attachment styles and how satisfied we are in a relationship. During the infatuation part of a relationship, high cortisol levels lead to lower serotonin ones, which often brings out some of our obsessive behaviours in relationships.


Finally, Oxytocin, often dubbed the love hormone, fosters social bonding and intimacy, reinforcing emotional closeness between partners through physical touch and affection.

 

The Evolution and Love and What it Means Today

Throughout time love has had a very important job. It is the driving force behind mate selection and the survival of our species. To fall in love and stay in love there was a need for suitability based on physical attractiveness, kindness, and intelligence. This cultivates long term pair bonding and increases the survival chances of our children through mutual care, shared resources, and societal cohesion.


So, what does Love mean today as we've evolved along with our social relationship norms and technology? If it's no longer for the survival of the species, what does it mean for us? It turns out love is still pretty important. 





Let's explore technology's influence on love - consider the rise of online dating. On the upside we have increased access to potential partners and on the downside, we have minimized the need for relationships and the effort and time it takes to create and solidify a meaningful bond. On the flip side, while technology has changed our dating and mating landscape, it has also brought about a rise in long-distance relationships and their success rate.


Despite the challenges that come with distance, increased and instant communication enhances trust-building, and appreciation for time together (even if its on screens) helps maintain intimacy. 


Love, Connection, and Community

The answer seems to be that we're adapting and evolving and finding new ways to keep connections alive that remain essential for our survival. Because love isn't just romantic. Having a strengthened bond between parents improves cooperation while raising a family. Not to mention, outside of our direct families, love is crucial in community, as strong bonds develop cooperation, collective action, and altruism, all which improve the group’s chance of survival. In addition, love provides emotional support and stability in a stressful and, at times, unforgiving world.


A Celebration of Love

Despite all the changes, traditions continue to celebrate our love for one another. This includes gift-giving ... and of course, Valentine's Day. This holiday has also had quite the evolution. According to Britannica.com, it began as a Roman holiday known as the festival of Lupercalia - which included fertility rituals and matching men and women through lottery. 

Today’s version is also commercial but in a much different way. Let's look at how people are showing their love. According to the National Retail Federation, the top 5 planned gifts for Valentine’s Day 2024 are:


54% Candy

40% Greeting cards

39% Flowers

32% An evening out

22% Jewelry


The survey also said the growing category of "the gift of experience" is reaching an all-time high of 33%. Overall, the estimate is $25.8 billion to celebrate world-wide, with an average of $181.85 per person. While the total spending keeps rising over each year, the record spending was in 2020, with a whopping $27.4 billion. These numbers include people spending the day with loved ones outside of their romantic relationships - parents, friends, coworkers, even pets - although this year it is projected, they will focus the spending on their significant others. Online shopping (40%) is likely to be the favourite shopping method, with 33% thinking of going to stores, 31% to discount stores, and only 17% planning on going to a florist. 

 



In conclusion, the study of the neuroscience behind love teaches us there is a complex combination of neural processes and biochemical pathways underlying this fundamental aspect of our human experience. While our understanding of love's neurobiology continues to evolve, its significance remains, shaping our relationships and society's dynamics. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of love in our world, embracing technology alongside timeless and new traditions, we continue to unravel the intricacies of this enduring phenomenon.


Happy Valentine's Day from Synaptic.



CONTRIBUTED BY: Thomas Tronche, Rehabilitation Specialist & Certified PoNS Trainer


To explore the full research article link here

 

Resources

 

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Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2024, February 10). Valentine’s Day. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day

 

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Shackman A., Wager T. (2019) The Emotional Brain: Fundamental Questions and Strategies for Future Research. Neurosci Litt,  693, 68-74.

 

2024 Valentine’s Day consumer trends. (2024, February 5). NRF. https://nrf.com/blog/2024-valentines-day-consumer-trends

 

 

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