Reflections on the Meaning of Love

Romantic Love

“Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.”

-Robert Frost

Ahh…to be in love.  What a wonderful state of being, and something that hopefully every human being will get to experience at least once in their lifetime.  But, what does it mean to be “in love?”

In recognition that so much has been written about passionate or romantic love, I’m going to touch on a few areas that may not be as widely discussed, but worth reflecting upon.

The Biology of Love

Many people can speak to the divide between emotion and reason, especially when it comes to passionate love.  A greater understanding of interpersonal neurobiology sheds light on this chasm that often exists…for better or for worse.

Psychiatrists from the University of California, San Francisco wrote in their book, “A General Theory of Love,” “The cleavage between reason and passion is an ancient theme but no anachronism; it has endured because it speaks to the deep human experience of a divided mind.” (Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, 2000, p. 31).

As these scholars described, the human brain is comprised of three different sub-brains that work together, yet are distinct from each other in their function and composition.  This “triune brain” found in mammals, consists of the reptilian, limbic and neocortical sub-brains.  The reptilian brain is responsible for basic life functions, like breathing and keeping the heart beating; the limbic brain is considered the emotional center; and the neocortical brain is responsible for higher cognitive functions like language and problem solving.  Because the brain is comprised of these three somewhat distinct components, sometimes there’s a bit of a gulf between the messages one receives in their heart and mind.  Hence, the experience where the heart is saying “yes” and the mind is saying “no.”

Humans tend to be most cognizant of the neocortical or rational part of their brain, yet it is the limbic region that has a powerful influence over it.  “Because people are most aware of the verbal, rational part of their brains, they assume that every part of their mind should be amenable to the pressure of argument and will.  Not so.  Words, good ideas, and logic mean nothing to at least two brains out of three.” (Lewis et al., 2000, p. 33)

Lewis et al., and others have described how human beings are often attracted to what is “familiar” to them.  Early life experiences essentially form a template with information about self and the world from which to draw upon.  Familiarity breeds trust and safety.   If one grows up with many positive experiences of love, then this familiarity can be a “good” thing. But, it can be more problematic if one’s primary models of relationship included unhealthy dynamics.

On a semi-related note, some theorize that the human soul is always naturally moving toward a place of self-actualization or healing.  As such, people can be “pulled” or attracted to others, on a subconscious level, that will present them with opportunities for growth (e.g., opportunities to work through and resolve their past hurts). For example, if somebody grew up in an unstable family, rife with the difficulties of unpredictability and lack of structure, then they may be subconsciously drawn to something similar.  While this may sound illogical, the theory is that this new relationship would present an opportunity to relive those old, difficult feelings with the hope of having a different outcome this time around (e.g., a resolution).  If a relationship like this is entered into without awareness, or if both parties haven’t already done some work on healing these old wounds, then the relationship is unlikely to be successful. In other words, there is no “resolution” process, the relationship fails and then the cycle is likely to start all over again with a different person.

In this scenario, even though the rational mind – the neocortex – may be saying “no” and seeing all kinds of red flags from the beginning, the emotional center (i.e., the limbic system) is saying “yes, you are the one I’ve been waiting for.”

Often times, the love-at-first-sight type of instant attraction is a sign that less rational mechanisms are leading the troops.  Keep in mind that strong physical and sexual attraction is certainly not a bad thing, and can be a great thing, indeed.  But, it also is something to be mindful of and to work with, instead of simply seeing it as a sign to go full bore into a relationship.

Helen Fisher, PhD., is an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and expert on the biology of love and interpersonal attraction.  Dr. Fisher’s research provides further explanation for the mysteries of romantic love from a biological perspective.

In her scholarly article entitled “Lust, Attraction and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction,” Dr. Fisher describes three interrelated, but distinct, emotional systems that are related to falling in love.  Her research, rooted in the study of the evolutionary biology, explains how each system or “stage” is associated with a set of biochemical processes that impact the body and mind.

Stage 1: Lust (aka: sex drive)

Lust refers to the drive or craving for sexual gratification.   Physiologically, this process is associated with androgens (e.g., testosterone) and estrogens, and evolutionarily speaking, was designed to motivate individuals to have sex with any member of the same species.

As Fisher has noted, research studies have shown that increases in testosterone or estrogen, in both males and females, increase sex drive and thoughts about sex, in both human and non-human mammals.

Stage 2: Attraction (aka: passionate love)

Attraction can be characterized by an increase in energy, excitement, and focus on a potential mate.  Sometimes, this can translate into obsessive thoughts and physical changes, such as decreased sleep and appetite.

This stage is associated with the production of catecholamines, and evolutionarily speaking, was designed to enable mate selectivity (i.e., one’s preferred choice for a partner vs. lust which is more indiscriminate).   Mate selectivity in mammalian behavior was designed to help individuals find “genetically superior mating partners.” (Fisher, Human Nature, 1998, p. 39).

In contrast to the correlation of increased sex, increases in testosterone or estrogen do not appear to impact one’s level of romantic attraction.  Catecholamine hormones include dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (adrenalin).  These hormones produce the same feelings of euphoria, increased energy, decreased need for sleep and hyper-focusing ability that one would get from using cocaine or amphetamines.  It’s no wonder that attraction can feel like an addiction!  Increased dopamine is also associated with increased fear arousal, which is commonly at play when one feels strong attraction.

Low levels of serotonin are also associated with attraction and in contrast, higher levels of serotonin tend to produce more calm, less fear, better sleep, etc., which aren’t typically associated with passionate love; hence, one explanation for the side effect of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) anti-depressant treatment that some experience: decreased libido.

As Fisher discusses, amongst humans, attraction is not purely a biological process; there are many factors involved. “Timing, state of health, access to resources, childhood experiences, and myriad other cultural and biological forces play crucial roles in triggering to whom one becomes attracted.   But, as this choice emerges, a specific emotion system is activated, enabling the individual to focus his/her mating effort on this preferred individual.” (Fisher, Human Nature, 1998, p. 30).

Fisher also notes that “intense attraction” is likely, but not undoubtedly, an innate, human quality, as it is found in most all cultures.

Stage 3: Attachment (aka: companionate love)

This stage refers to the maintenance of an established social and emotional union that is characterized by a variety of behaviors that promote cohesion, such as regular contact, mutual support, and feelings of calm and comfort.

The physiologic correlates of attachment involve primarily vasopressin and oxytocin, which are two types of hormones produced in the hypothalamus.  Attachment evolved to facilitate pro-social connections and successful parenting of offspring.  Vasopressin and oxytocin are linked specifically to monogamous attachment and monogamous parenting behavior within the mammal community.

Dr. Fisher describes how these three emotional systems are interrelated, yet distinct, as evidenced by the different physiological correlates. “Men and women can express attachment for a spouse or long-term mate, attraction toward a different conspecific, and the sex drive in response to visual, verbal, or mental stimuli that are unrelated to either the spouse or the individual to whom they are romantically attracted.” (Human Nature, 1998, p: 26).   She notes how these distinct emotional systems evolved to enable mating flexibility, which is a defining feature of human behavior.  “The independence of these emotion systems in humans evolved to take advantage of rare mating opportunities and to pursue a mixture of short-term and long-term reproductive strategies simultaneously or in succession.” (Human Nature, 1998, p. 42).

She concludes by noting that much variation exists within individuals, relative to environmental pressures and opportunities.  Like any theory related to human behavior, there’s no one-size-fits-all perspective.  But, a key take away from the data on biology and love is that it’s important to take an integrative approach to romance.  One way to do this is by being mindful of the complex interplay of biological and social dynamics, which is discussed further in the next section.

Next Section: Romantic Love – Part II – An Alternative Theory on Crushes, Sex and Closeness


  1. Good to hear this here.

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