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What is Love? Part 1

Love is universal: in all cultures, most everyone experiences love. Love evolved to promote commitment and cooperation between people. If it’s so ubiquitous and desired, why is love so hard to define?

In some ways, it’s easier to say what love isn’t. Love has been cheapened: coopted into marketing campaigns or reduced to romantic infatuations. I, even with all the time I have spent thinking about love and fear, fall prey to this minimization when I say, “I love chocolate cake.” I do enjoy eating a gooey chocolate cake, but love is something much greater.

When I first started researching love, I thought that finding a definition would be easy. I was surprised to learn that defining love is quite difficult—and contentious. As psychiatrist Richard Sutherland laments, “There is no more ambiguous word in the dictionary than ‘love.’” I believe that striving to define love, even if we can never fully pinpoint what it is, is a worthwhile and fruitful endeavor as it can help us articulate to ourselves and others the lovers that we wish to be—and show us the path towards our ideal loving.

Evolution of Love. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss writes, “From an evolutionary perspective, love is an adaptation, or more accurately a complex suite of adaptations, designed to solve specific problems of survival and reproduction.” Love evolved first in various intimate relationships. Maternal love was the first to evolve, followed by consort love.[1] Experiencing love in these two relationship types set the stage for the evolution of paternal love. Sibling relationships, strengthened by playing together and child-parent love, evolved into love for close relatives and was followed by love for peers. Next was collective loves, encompassing non-familial members of one’s group and members of other friendly groups with whom you might interact. Finally, we evolved the potential for universal love.

Neurology of Love. Neuroscientists have confirmed that our brains and bodies are greatly influenced by love. Neuroimaging has shown that multiple brain areas are activated when we see or think about someone we love. Many of these brain activations operate quicker than our conscious awareness can process—we experience physiological responses to seeing (or thinking about) a beloved before our thoughts can catch up. Love both excites and inhibits various neural pathways, and their associated neural transmitters—in other words, love makes us more prone to do certain things and less prone to do others. Love releases neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin increases trust and decreases stress responses; this may be why loving relationships promote health (particularly a reduction in cardiovascular diseases and depression). These neuropeptides stimulate our reward pathway in a manner similar to the effects of cocaine; your brain receives a literal ‘love high.’ Love also releases endorphins, such as β-endorphin and dopamine. These endorphins increase our prosocial predispositions, so that we are more likely to engage in loving behaviors towards others.

In total, love makes us feel more trusting, relaxed, and happy. Love activates brain areas responsible for triggering our basic instincts and emotions, as well as higher-order cognitive functions (conscious thoughts). Love makes us think and feel more positively about ourselves, those around us, and the world in general.

So, what is Love? As interesting as the evolution and neuropsychology of love are, they give us few tools to discuss and understand our experiences of love. Researcher Beverly Fehr posits that love has universal features as well as gender, cultural, and personal differences in our definition of (and satisfaction with) love. Although the experience of love is personal, there are commonalities in writings on love across time and cultures. To elucidate our experiences of love, we need to turn to art, literature, and philosophy. See What is Love? Part 2 for that discussion.

[1] A consort is a committed romantic relationship that is recognized by one’s community. Although a consort relationship includes a multi-year commitment, it has not been assumed to be a lifetime in all societies. When there are children involved, a joint commitment to rearing children to independence is expected. In many societies across time, it need not be a monogamous relationship. Polygamous relationships must be publicly known and sanctioned to qualify as a consort relationship, rather than as an affair. In contemporary societies, marriage is a legally-sanctioned consort relationship, originally designed to last until one member died. Individuals who were denied the ability to or chose not to engage with the institutional arrangement of marriage have still formed consort relationships.

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