Love: Fact, Myth or Illusion?

aliss's picture

Love is the most famous and most desired of all human emotions. Poems, plays, novels, and songs have been written about love; people kill for love and people die for love. Love, as they say, conquers all. But what is this emotion really?  Where does it come from? This subject has been studied by researchers in all sorts of fields, from philosophy to sociology to biochemistry. Researchers are now beginning to put together the clues about love and are starting to form certain conclusions about the emotion and how our bodies create it and experience it; however, many questions are still left unanswered.

            I discussed the topic of love with a group of seniors in a neural and behavioral science class and the class members had some interesting insights which they added to the discussion. Our discussion began with an attempt to classify the word “love.” We focused on romantic love as opposed to familial love or platonic love. How is love defined? What does love mean, to both the scientist and to the average layperson? We attempted to define love by coming up with a list of different emotions and feelings that could be amalgamated into love: attraction, affection, friendship, desire, companionship, affinity, and a long list of other synonyms. However, we agreed that we would not define any of these separately did not equal our perceptions of love, and the combination of all of them also left something to be desired. I have attempted to further define the feeling of “love” since the discussion. When discussing love, we did not mention the aspect of exclusivity that is implicit in romantic love. In fact, I believe that this exclusivity may be what separates love from friendship: a person can have many friends and none of them will ever resent that person for it, but a person should only be in love with one person at a time.

            However, some researchers suggest that this is not the case, at least for the male brain. Everyone had heard many times that the male brain is “hardwired” for infidelity, that men are visual creatures and have a biological urge to “spread their seed” and so are therefore more likely to cheat on their partners. A recent interview with Dr. Louann Brizendine, the author of The Male Brain, suggests some scientific evidence to support this theory. She claims that the urge to cheat in men might be somehow related to the vasopressin receptor gene, a gene that codes for a receptor in the brain for the hormone vasopressin. This gene has been found in multiple copies in a monogamous species of vole but in a shortened version in a non-monogamous species of vole. According to Dr. Brizendine, 17 different variants of this gene have been identified in humans; she offers some evidence that men with a longer version of this gene are more faithful to their wives than men without this gene (Fitzpatrick, 2010).

            Most of the research that has been done on this gene has been conducted using voles. The prairie vole is a monogamous species, while the montane vole is a nonmonogamous species. Multiple studies show that the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin work together with dopamine to form the pair bonds observed in prairie voles. Oxytocin seems to be more important for pair bonding in females, while vasopressin seems to be more important for pair bonding in males. Monogamous species of moles have more oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in their brains than nonmonogamous species, indicating that they are more susceptible to the effects of these hormones. Antagonists to these receptors, which prevent the hormones from having their effects on the brain, have been shown to eliminate the voles’ capacity to make pair bonds. These hormones also interact with the dopaminergic reward system of the brain, making pair bond formation rewarding for the voles that respond to vasopressin or oxytocin. These hormones are released during mating and cause the creation of the pair bond to be related to the presence of the mate (Young & Wang, 2004). These researchers suggest that overexpression of the receptors for vasopressin and oxytocin in voles could lead to enhanced pair bonding in species that are not normally monogamous.

            But how does this relate to human pair bonding, or as we like to call it when we see it in other humans, love? Can we equate exclusive sexual bonding in voles with the emotion of love? Can we say that animals are in love? These are interesting questions that should be at least considered, although they are difficult to answer. Human beings have the tendency to anthropomorphize the behaviors of animals; this is evident in the New York Times article, “Can Animals be Gay?” (Mooallem, 2010) that was published earlier this year. In it, people who study the behavior of albatrosses examine the fact that they often see female-female albatross pairs. Are these albatrosses homosexual? “Homosexual behavior” has been witnessed in many animals, but can we say that animals are gay? Homosexuality does not only imply a preference in terms of sexual behavior but also with whom a person falls in love. Many of these animals are seen to exhibit homosexual behaviors and heterosexual behaviors; it is rare that these animals exhibit exclusive homosexual behaviors. Are the animals bisexual? Humans want to classify everything in terms that we are already familiar with ourselves, but it seems to me that we cannot use animal models to study love. We do not know what the subjective experience of a pair bond is like for voles, or what the subjective experience of any other animal is - we can only guess using what we know from our own subjective experiences. Beyond these problems of subjective experience, we may not be able to learn much from a completely monogamous species because humans are not exactly monogamous. The human mating pattern is best described as “serial monogamy,” but we are not a species that seems to be intended to mate for life, despite what societal norms or religious beliefs tell us.

            We know that oxytocin plays a role in mother-child bonding in humans, so it would make sense that these hormones that we have learned about in animal models have some role in human attachment. However, romantic love is so much more complex, with so many more facets than a simple pair bond. For humans, sex is not always equivalent to love. Additionally, the claims from the studies of voles suggest that sex comes first, that the hormones released by sex are what cause feelings of love. However, for many people, love comes before sex. Many people say that they prefer to wait until they are in love to have sex, a choice that is encouraged by both religious institutions and traditional values. Humans seem to use love as a test for sex; if someone has earned love, then they are worthy of sex. Evolutionarily, this may indicate that feelings of love are the body’s way of telling us that we have found an evolutionarily fit mate.

Evolutionary psychology and biology have suggested several reasons why love may have come to evolve in humans, rather than other types of mating strategies. Love sometimes seems evolutionarily counterintuitive: people are sometimes willing to give up their lives for those they love. However, love seems to have evolutionary benefits in terms of passing one’s genes on to the next generation. Not only does love increase the chances of mating, it also allows two parents to share the burden of a human’s long childhood stage. The emotions of love help two parents to stay together through emotionally difficult time and help individuals to resist mating with others in order to continue receiving the benefits of love. Feelings of love also help people to select one partner out of many possible mates (Gonzaga & Haselton, 2008).

            Beyond evolution and biological “causes” of love, it has become an extremely important construct in modern society. Although it is hard to define what love is, the general implications and consequences of love are a human universal. Modern society is built around the ideas of love and marriage. We are reinforcing the tendency that our species has evolved towards love, and selecting for those who love more. Our society has created its own definition of love that has become everyone’s ideal: exclusive, lifelong romantic love. This ideal represents our shared subjectivity of the purity of love. Society has elevated our search for a mate into something larger, but is that because we want to raise ourselves up above the “animal” aspects of sex, or is it because our brains have created a level of emotional attachment related to love that other animals may not have?

            Science has many suggestions about love, what it is, why it exists, and how it happens. However, most studies look at one particular aspect of love, whether it is commitment, attraction, or dissolution of love. Several studies have suggested brain areas that have a role in feelings of love. It may be related to the dopaminergic reward system, or it may be the parts of the brain that deal with learned behaviors. The brain response is likely different in males and females, but we don’t know why beyond evolutionary investment explanations. Questions about love still remain and are difficult to answer. The question of love gone wrong also remains: what is the use of unrequited love? Is it some kind of glitch in the brain system that creates love? We don’t know exactly what causes love or what it is, but it is likely that much of what we think of as love is the brain reacting to a good, beneficial situation. Our society's shared subjectivity and grand expectations for love may all come down to an evolutionary adaptation that creates pleasant brain chemistry. Jim Pfaus, a sex researcher at Concordia University in Montreal sums up all we really know about love on one sentence: “You think someone makes you feel good, but it’s really your brain that made you feel good” (Kluger, 2008).



Fitzpatrick, L. (2010, March 30). The male brain: More complex than you think. Time.

Gonzaga, G. & Haselton, M. G. (2008). The evolution of love and long-term bonds. In J.

P. Forgas & J. Fitness (Eds). Social Relationships: Cognitive, Affective, and Motivational Processes. (pp. 39-54). New York: Psychology Press.

Kluger, J. (2008, January 17). The science of romance: Why we love. Time.

Mooallem, J. (2010, March 29). Can animals be gay? The New York Times.

Young, L.J., & Wang, Z. (2004). The neurobiology of pair bonding. Nature

Neuroscience, 7, 1048-1054.




Paul Grobstein's picture

love plus and the brain

"You think someone makes you feel good, but it’s really your brain that made you feel good”

That seems to me a nice frame within which to think not only about love but about lots of the other subjects we talked about this semester.  Replace "someone" with "a painting" or a "piece of research" etc and one gets .... subjectivity at the base of all experience/understanding.  And perhaps a different perspective on how to explore all these subjects as a neuroscientist? 

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