What is love? By Eduardo Angulo

This post is also available in: Spanish, Catalan

You ask me about love, but my answer will focus on romantic love. It is obvious that this one is only a small part of the other, much bigger, which encompasses every single possible love: that of parents, between siblings, to close people, neighbors, friends and, even this vague Universal love we feel towards all individuals in our species. By the way, love and hate are interchangeable, it seems they are controlled by the same zones in our brain and they share common characteristics, such as addiction and exaggeration (boleros, coplas, tonadilleras and bullfighters are examples of it).

Romantic love and hate are very similar. For example, if you show an image of the loved one to a rejected lover, he or she will respond with feelings of love, despair, good and bad memories and surprise at the fact that all of that happened to him or her. And in his or her brain areas related to gains (like money), eagerness to get something (cocaine) and emotion regulation are activated. If the same piece of research is conducted with non-rejected lovers, with the happily engaged, the same areas are activated. Summarizing, for the brain all that matters is that we’re in love, whether we are loved back or not.

These brain areas host our mechanisms for motivation and compensation. In relation to romantic love, they control a myriad of feelings, from simple sexual attraction to the building of emotional ties which should lead to a long-term relationship. And they also control, for example, maternal love; it’s not surprising, since they are both important for the continuing of our species and, thus, they have to be rewarded.

Consequently, love works following the motivation and reward mechanisms, and directed by hormones and neurotransmitters. Thus, love can be defined as a chemical phenomenon that causes addiction. We fall in love with someone with a specific dopamine, serotonine, estrogen and testosterone profile, which should be different to ours and also complementary. Furthermore, to establish the tie which leads to romantic love (the famous “love at first sight”) it is necessary to have certain levels of oxytocin and vasopressin, which deactivate negative emotions toward the other, lead us to know their emotions and back up their intentions and push us to social interaction. Summarizing, they build links that later other hormones and neurotransmitters will make permanent or not.

Maybe all of this will make you think we already know enough of love’s neurobiology to be able to manufacture “love potions” soon, with the right dosage of hormones and the like to make us able to seduce anyone we want. This is not so, a lot of research still needs to be done. Such a morphologically complex process as insect metamorphosis is controlled by only four hormones; it depends not only on their presence or absence, but also on the relative concentrations of each of them. This means an almost infinite number of possibilities. The same thing happens with love. These hormones and neurotransmitters I have mentioned, and maybe some others we still don’t know, make love ambiguous, unpredictable and not very subject to rules, which in turn allows it to keep being romantic. And, if you don’t believe me, read any classic you wish; there are authentic treasures of wisdom about love, to which science still doesn’t even come close.


*Fisher, H.E., L.L. Brown, A. Aron, G. Strong & D. Mashek. 2010. Reward, addiction and
emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of Neurophysiology 104:

*Frazzetto, G. 2010. The science of online dating. EMBO Reports 11: 25-27.

*Zeki, S. 2007. The neurobiology of love. FEBS Letters 581

More papers from this author.

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