What is a brain in love? Researchers dive into brain scans to explore how our brain processes love to uncover how the brain responds to different types of love.
Love is one of the most complex and mysterious emotions we experience as humans.
But what happens in our brains when we fall in love has fascinated humans for centuries.
Researchers recently unlocked our brain’s response to two types of love. Their study discovered that love activates different areas of the brain, suggesting that evolutionarily stable brain mechanisms are involved in the two types of human love (Shih et al., 2022).
The scientists analyzed “every available functional neuroimaging study on human love” to unearth how motherly and passionate love work in the brain.
“The god of love lives in a state of need. It is a need, it is an urge, it is a homeostatic imbalance. Like hunger and thirst, it’s almost impossible to stamp out.”– Plato
Let’s take a deep dive into how the brain responds to being in love.
What A Brain In Love?
Love in the brain involves various brain areas associated with reward, pleasure, and stress.
Shih & Huang analyzed “every” peer-reviewed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study on human love published between January 1997 and July 2021.
Here’s what they found about what love is in the brain:
- Both maternal and passionate types of love activate similar brain regions involved in reward, motivation, and cognitive processing, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NAcc), and prefrontal cortex (PFC).
- However, there were also some differences in brain activity between maternal and passionate love. For example, maternal love tends to involve more regions abundant in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, which are crucial for maternal-infant bonds.
The meta-analysis (meaning a study of studies) also explored the role of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin in love.
Dopamine is released when we experience pleasure or reward, while oxytocin is associated with social bonding and trust. We will discuss this later in the article.
Features of Romantic Love
Passionate or romantic love is the intense romantic attraction between two adults.
We feel like we’re addicted when in romantic love. We become obsessed with the other person, constantly thinking about them, and willing to take enormous risks to win them over.
Indeed, romantic love has three key signs of addiction.
- Firstly, there’s tolerance – the rising need to be in their company more frequently and more intensely.
- Secondly, withdrawal symptoms manifest when they are not around, creating an emotional void.
- Lastly, relapse, being swept back into the intense love despite attempts to maintain distance.
Features of Maternal Love
Maternal or motherly love is an instinctual and potent force that is integral to the mother-child bond.
Its primary characteristics are:
- Unconditional: Maternal love is often seen as unconditional. Mothers typically love their children irrespective of their actions, choices, or behaviors, accepting them wholly with their imperfections and individual peculiarities.
- Nurturing: Mothers have a natural inclination to nurture their children. They offer care, comfort, and support to secure their children’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.
- Self-sacrifice: Maternal love often involves a high degree of self-sacrifice. Mothers frequently put their children’s wants and needs before their own, prioritizing their child’s welfare above everything else.
- Protectiveness: One of the most profound aspects of maternal love is the instinct to protect. This protective instinct drives mothers to safeguard their children from harm.
- Patience and Forgiveness: Maternal love embodies patience and forgiveness. Mothers understand their children’s developmental stages and their potential mistakes. They readily forgive them and steer them gently toward the correct path.
- Long-lasting: Maternal love is enduring. No matter how many years pass or the distance between them, the bond between a mother and her child remains unbroken and strong.
These are the cornerstones of maternal love, making it a unique and incredibly powerful form of affection.
Motherly vs. Romantic Love In Brain: Similar, Yet Different
Both types are two distinct types of love that humans experience. However, despite their differences, both types share some similarities in brain activity.
Brain Similarities In Maternal & Passionate Love
- Both maternal and passionate love activate similar brain regions involved in reward, motivation, and cognitive processing.
- For example, both types of love involve the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is associated with the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.
- This suggests that there may be some common evolutionary origins and neurobiological mechanisms underlying different types of human love.
Brain Differences In Maternal & Passionate Love
- However, there are also some differences in brain activity between maternal and passionate love.
- Maternal love tends to involve more regions abundant in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, which are crucial for maternal-infant bonds.
- Passionate love, on the other hand, tends to involve more bilateral activation in the VTA, indicating its highly rewarding nature.
The Brain In Love – Helen Fisher
In this 2005 study, Helen Fisher, Arthur Aron, & Lucy Brown found that certain areas of the brain, associated with reward and motivation, were activated in people who were deeply in love. This suggested that romantic love is more of a motivating drive towards someone rather than just an emotion.
Also, romantic love likely evolved to help focus on specific potential mates, helping to conserve energy and aiding reproductive success.
Helen Fisher, anthropologist and an expert on love, says this about the brain in love:
We found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions.
Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s below your emotions. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus, and with craving.
In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.
In her TED talk, she recounts this beautiful love story:
“In the jungles of Guatemala, in Tikal, stands a temple. It was built by the grandest Sun King, of the grandest city-state, of the grandest civilization of the Americas, the Mayas. His name was Jasaw Chan K’awiil.
He stood over six feet tall. He lived into his 80s, and he was buried beneath this monument in 720 AD. And Mayan inscriptions proclaim that he was deeply in love with his wife. So, he built a temple in her honor, facing his.
And every spring and autumn, exactly at the equinox, the sun rises behind his temple, and perfectly bathes her temple with his shadow. And as the sun sets behind her temple in the afternoon, it perfectly bathes his temple with her shadow.
After 1,300 years, these two lovers still touch and kiss from their tombs.”
The Feel-Good Chemicals That Make Us Fall in Love
The researchers revealed what “chemical” changes occur in the brain when we experience love.
Fascinatingly, much of the love experience in the brain is made up of feel-good chemicals.
When we fall in love, we often experience a rush of intense emotions and physical sensations.
These feelings are partly triggered by the release of dopamine and oxytocin in our brains.
Dopamine: The “feel-good” neurotransmitter
Dopamine is released when we see or think about our loved ones. It creates a sense of euphoria and reinforces our desire to seek out that person.
Actually, the dopaminergic system in our brain is related to pleasure or reward. It gets activated when we have pleasurable experiences like money, cocaine, and sex.
This system is also active in human love, particularly in the basal ganglia, which triggers feelings of obsession and euphoria.
So, dopamine is released when we feel pleasure or reward from our love experience.
Oxytocin: The “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone”
Oxytocin, on the other hand, is associated with social bonding and trust. It is released during physical touch, such as hugging or kissing, and can create a sense of closeness and intimacy between partners.
Oxytocinergic pathways are associated with maternal love in humans.
Previous studies show that maternal love is linked to the neural reward system in coordination with the dopaminergic and oxytocinergic pathways, which create unique patterns different from basic emotions.
Animal experiments have shown that oxytocin is important for appropriate maternal behaviors in rats.
So, oxytocin is released during experiences of love, particularly maternal love.
Dopamine vs. Oxytocin
The study found that both dopamine and oxytocin are released in both types of love, but their relative contributions may differ depending on the type of love being experienced.
- Maternal love involved brain regions more abundant in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, crucial for maternal-infant bonds.
- Passionate love showed bilateral VTA activation, which is associated with dopaminergic reward processing.
Moreover, both dopamine and oxytocin can create a feedback loop that reinforces our feelings of love and attachment to another person.
So, the more time we spend with our loved ones, the more dopamine and oxytocin are released in our brains, leading to stronger feelings of love and connection.
Brain Parts That Light Up In Love
Brain regions involved in both maternal and passionate love:
- Ventral tegmental area (VTA)
- Nucleus accumbens (NAcc)
- Prefrontal cortex (PFC)
Brain regions involved in maternal love:
- Regions abundant in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors
Brain regions involved in passionate love:
- Bilateral activation in the VTA
Brain Chemicals That Surge In Love
Chemicals involved in both maternal and passionate love:
- Other feel-good chemicals (the study does not specify the “other” feel-good chemicals involved in love, but it is likely that they include serotonin, endorphins, and adrenaline, which can contribute a sense of pleasure, euphoria, and excitement to our experience of love.)
Chemicals involved in maternal love:
Chemicals involved in passionate love:
How Culture & Gender Affect Our Brains When In Love
Here are some key findings on how culture and gender affect our brains when we’re in love:
Cultural Differences In Romantic Love
The study found that cultural factors can influence the way people experience and express romantic love.
- Western cultures tend to emphasize passionate, individualistic love.
- Eastern cultures tend to value more collectivistic, companionate love.
These cultural differences may be reflected in different patterns of brain activity during romantic experiences.
Cultural Influences On Attachment Styles
Finally, the study suggests that cultural factors can shape our attachment styles (the way we form emotional bonds with others).
These can then have long-lasting effects on our relationships and mental health.
- People from collectivistic cultures may be more likely to have a secure attachment style based on interdependence and social harmony.
- While people from individualistic cultures may be more likely to have an avoidant or anxious attachment style based on independence and self-reliance.
Gender Differences In Romantic Love
The study also found that gender can play a role in how people experience and express romantic love.
- Women tend to show more activity in brain regions associated with emotional processing and social cognition.
- Men tend to show more activity in regions associated with visual processing and attention.
These gender differences may reflect different evolutionary pressures on men and women when it comes to mate selection and reproduction.
Cross-cultural Similarities In Maternal Love
Despite cultural and gender differences in romantic love, the study found some cross-cultural similarities in the neural mechanisms of maternal love.
Across different cultures, maternal love tends to activate the brain regions involved in reward, motivation, emotion, and social cognition.
Reference: Shih, H.-C., Kuo, M.-E., Wu, C.W., Chao, Y.-P., Huang, H.-W., & Huang, C.-M. (2022). The Neurobiological Basis of Love: A Meta-Analysis of Human Functional Neuroimaging Studies of Maternal and Passionate Love. Brain Sciences, 12(7), 830. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci12070830
Does love make us fools?
It seems likely that we may act as “fools” when we are in love. Research suggests when in love, we don’t always think rationally and base many decisions on our primitive brain rather than our thinking brain.
In 2005, a research team led by Fisher published a study that included the first functional MRI (fMRI) images of the brains of individuals in the throes of romantic love. They analyzed 2,500 brain scans of college students looking at pictures of someone special to them.
The researchers found that primitive areas of the brain were lit up on brain scans when talking about a romantically loved one. This suggested that the neural machinery for making critical assessments of other people, especially those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down when engaged in romantic love.
What happens in the brain when we fall out of love?
The brain is hardwired to help us fall out of love, and researchers call this process “mate ejection.”
When we fall out of love, the reward centers of the brain (that release dopamine and cause pleasure) stop being stimulated. Falling out of love is also a process of forgetting old habits and connections, which can cause changes in the release patterns of hormones and neurotransmitters associated with pleasure, reward, and bonding. The “out-of-love” brain starts to rewire and stops seeing the partner as a pathway to happiness and excitement.
This also suggests that couples must engage in fun, exciting, and new experiences to get the dopamine and norepinephrine surges to reward their brains and create a feedback loop to reinforce feelings of love and attachment to the other person.
How long does it take for the brain to stop associating pleasure with a former partner?
While there is no fixed timeline for how long it takes for the brain to stop associating pleasure with a former partner, some experts suggest that it can take several months to several years for most people to fully recover from a breakup.
The length and intensity of the relationship, the nature of the breakup, and the level of attachment can all influence how long it takes for the brain to stop associating pleasure with a former partner. Reminders of the ex-partner and certain coping strategies can also prolong the association between pleasure and the ex-partner.
“Around the world, people love. They sing for love, they dance for love, they compose poems and stories about love. … But love isn’t always a happy experience.”– Helen Fisher
In summary, this is what the researchers found by peering into the inner workings of our brains during different types of love, as three take-home messages:
- Love is a rich and intricate experience that engages various brain regions and chemical messengers. While maternal love and passionate love share some neural mechanisms, they also exhibit unique patterns of brain activity and chemical involvement.
- Our cultural and gender backgrounds can shape our experiences and expressions of love, as well as our attachment styles and relationship outcomes. Understanding these differences can help us appreciate the diversity of human experiences and improve our ability to communicate and empathize with others in relationships.
- Neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI and ALE can provide valuable insights into the neural basis of human emotions. Future studies could explore new methods for studying the complex interplay between biology, culture, and psychology in love and relationships.
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy. His expertise is in mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoic philosophy.
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