Love’s Labor’s Won: A Scientific Look at Love

Catrina Mueller's picture
Love: it’s something we all have experienced, at least in some shape or form. Love has many shapes and forms. Love can grow, dwindle, and change. It can be weak or strong. Just a crush or an infatuation. It can be obsessive, consuming, and above all: unpredictable. One can love objects, ideas, and, of course, other humans. But what the heck is love? Unfortunately, there is no general scientific consensus as to what the phenomenon of “love” is exactly. This makes sense, as love is such a complex emotion. There are, however, many theories that try to bring us closer to the truth of love.

Love can be defined by the contact between two people. A mother and child form strong bonds due to a mother’s touch. In this way, touch is a “means of connection” between parent and offspring. At birth, a mother cuddles her young close to herself in order to feed the baby and so the child’s sense of safety and care when in his mother’s arms begins. This feeding-bonding process must happen frequently, because, “human beings produce very dilute breast milk, which necessitates frequent nursing sessions and therefore provides loads of opportunities for mother and child to touch.” (1) Later in life, the mother’s touch can be comforting when a child needs it most and reassure the child that everything is okay. This touch brings a sense of security with it that helps kindle the fire of familial love. Of course, the touch of two lovers is also an extremely important part of love. Lovers hug, kiss, and stroke each other. These actions may invoke a feeling of comfort between the lovers much like a mother and child relationship, but also add a deeper sense of connection between the two.

Sex is also an important physical form of love. According to Wikipedia, “Sexuality can be an important element in determining the shape of a relationship.” (2) Many believe that sex is the ultimate physical form of love between two people as sex is the strongest physical way for lovers to show display their passion for each other and involves the largest amount of body contact between two people. Another of sex’s purposes may be for “’exploring that [one’s] consciousness with another person’”. (1) Although language may be a faulty form of communicating between people, a person’s consciousness has a better time of expressing love through body contact. Although a person may not know what to say to another with words, his or her actions during sex will tell just how in love that person is.

While one’s consciousness is busy expressing itself through the physical aspects of love, other things are going on in the brain. For example, when a person is in love, his or her caudate nucleus is more active. (1) This area of the brain “directs bodily movement”, but also houses “the mind's network for general arousal, sensations of pleasure and the motivation to acquire rewards”. (1) Higher levels of passion corresponded with higher stimulation of the caudate nucleus. (1) Dopamine, which “produces focused attention as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation”, is found in elevated levels when a person is in love. (1) Interestingly enough, dopamine is also a form of antidepressant, can be used to help lessen schizophrenic patients’ symptoms, and is released when a person uses cocaine. (3)(4) Seems like the body really wants to make sure that we love.

When described by the need for touch, the elevated stimulation of caudate nucleus, and heightened levels of dopamine in the brain, love seems very boring. How could it be that such a strong emotion is controlled by just raising some brain properties? Love, which is made into something almost magical by our culture, can be whittled down to something so simple, it’s almost maddening. But is it really just these things that control something as complex as love? Why do we fall in love with specific people? Why do we tend to fall in love with our opposites? I don’t think that it will ever be possible to completely understand what love is and why we experience it, but it seems that we are at least starting to put these things together.

(1) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040119-574799,00.html time magazine article relating to the tactile portions of love

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love Wikipedia article on love

(3) http://depression.about.com/cs/brainchem101/a/brainchemistry_2.htm article about depression

(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine_hypothesis_of_schizophrenia dopamine and schizophrenia connection theory (dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia)

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