The Science of Love

Love can mean so many different things: it’s the reason you forgive your partner for always being late, commit to finishing a creative project or dream about getting a promotion to take your kids to Disneyland. It’s also the reason you feel devastated when your favorite team loses, or that you ache when a friend is sick. And while psychologists generally agree that there are only a few kinds of love, everyone views it in a very different way.

The biological model sees love as a mammalian drive, like hunger or thirst. It’s driven by hormones, such as oxytocin, neurotrophins and pheromones. The psychology model, however, tends to look at love as more of a social and cultural phenomenon, influenced by how we think about it.

One of the biggest debates is whether love is a choice or something that comes from outside of us. You’ve probably heard about those Pollyannas who seem to have a relentlessly sunny disposition, but can they really choose their happiness? And what about those who aren’t “lucky” and still seem happy?

Regardless of the definition you choose, the science behind love is fascinating. It’s not just about feeling good when someone else does well, it’s actually a complex process that involves the entire brain. Brain scans of people in love have shown that the primary reward centers light up much more than they do when we see someone we don’t care about or even neutral images of a stranger.

There’s also an evolutionary basis for love, as we need to feel close to our family members and partners to survive. This is especially true for humans, who have a longer childhood than most animals and need the love and protection of their parents for many years.

Falling in love fulfills, at least temporarily, many of the basic psychological needs from the hierarchy of human need: our need for nurture and sexuality, our need to be safe and loved, and our need to be socially accepted and included. And while we may only be able to maintain this state for a few short years, it’s an amazing feeling when we experience it.

When we’re in the throes of romantic love, it feels as though the world is a dreamy place, and that anything is possible. This is partly due to the way love changes our perception of the world around us — our sense of time and space is altered, and we see the world in a more idealistic way. But if we’re not careful, this can lead to unrealistic expectations and unhealthy relationships. The key to a healthy relationship is being realistic about what love can and can’t do for you.