Matters of the heart: The science of love
Ahhh, Valentine’s day. Our second favourite day in February (a close second to pancake day).
Valentine’s day has its origins in an ancient Roman festival, Lupercalia. Every mid-February, the Roman people would celebrate fertility and the coming of Spring. Women would be paired off with men through a bingo-style draw, ready to start breeding the next generation.
It’s not quite our contemporary idea of romance – with our modern notions of soul-mates, monogamy and matrimony. But then again, what really is love, from a scientific point of view?
Being a creative agency for healthcare brands, we thought we’d delve into the facts and share the love.
What is love, actually?
Anthropologists, sociologists and neuroscientists have been trying to answer this question for decades. And while we may never have a fully comprehensive understanding, our brain chemistry gives us the clearest picture of what love is and how it works.
Romantic love can be categorised by three things: lust, attraction and attachment.1
Lust is a necessary component of love with a rather simple aim: procreation. Put most simply, to fulfill our basic evolutionary goal of continuing the human race, we need to want to have sex. Lust helps the process along, as our testes and ovaries secrete testosterone and estrogen, respectively.
Attraction may sound the same as lust, but it functions differently from a chemical perspective. Attraction involves the ‘reward’ centre of our brain, and when we begin to really like someone, we’re flooded with dopamine and norepinephrine.
This gives us the rush, the giddy happiness that we associate with a new relationship. These chemicals can even decrease our appetite and make it harder for us to sleep! If you find yourself acting impulsively, doing silly things or feeling irrationally jealous with your new partner, it might be because your body is producing too much dopamine.
Interestingly, attraction is related to a decrease in serotonin, which regulates mood. People who suffer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are found to have decreased levels of serotonin. Fascinatingly, this could help explain the often obsessive way we feel about the person we’re falling for.
So, lust and attraction have stirred up a chemical cocktail inside you. You’re feeling entirely ‘loved up’ and the world looks bright. But this can’t last indefinitely. Over time your hormones will settle down. So how does the love stay alive?
That’s where attachment comes in. Attachment also mediates familial love, friendships and other forms of intimacy we don’t consider romantic. The hormones that rule attachment are oxcytocin and vosapressin – which engender a sense of bonding and create feelings of loyalty towards your partner, child, friend, etc.
Do we really need love?
As social creatures, we truly do need love. Especially in our formative years.
Without the love of parents or carers, we might not physically survive being babies due to the level of care we require. And in matters of sociality, intelligence and emotional capabilities, the story is far more complex.
New research from King’s College London, which studied children raised in Romanian orphanages, found that the children’s brains were 8.6% smaller on average.2 And the length of time they spent in the orphanages directly correlated with the decline in brain size.
Denying a child a close bond during their early years creates a ‘virtual black hole’ in place of the orbitofrontal cortex.3 This means the child is less able to manage their emotions, relate and feel empathy for others – even to experience pleasure at all.
Even more tragically, the effects of lovelessness and neglect are seemingly irreversible. A higher prevalence of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder continue through adulthood.
How do you love?
When it comes to the way we love – the way we act and interact with our partners – attachment theory claims to categorise us. 4
The three key types of attachments, as theorised by prominent psychoanalyst John Bowlby, are secure, anxious or avoidant.4 Which one you are is influenced by the first attachment bond you formed – with your parent or caregiver.
Secure attachment is characterised by being comfortable with intimacy, and able to maintain a level of independence. Secure attachment makes for fairly straightforward relationships without overdramatic tendencies.
Anxious attachment is characterised by needy tendencies and sometimes doubtfulness. These people always want to be with their partner, and when they’re not they are often thinking about their relationship. This strong preoccupation can make it hard to focus on other elements of their lives.
Avoidant attachment is almost the opposite of anxious. These people fear or dislike the concept of being attached to someone and struggle with intimacy. Understandably, they are less likely to be in a typical, monogamous relationship.
It’s important to remember that neither of these attachment styles are negative or positive in and of themselves. But we do think it’s helpful to learn more about which you and your partner fit into, to help foster healthier relationships.
At Create Health, we’re big believers in the importance of understanding mindsets. That’s how we create engaging marketing that can change hearts and minds.
If you have any questions for us about this article, or how to better understand the psychology of your audience, please do get in touch.
- Fisher, H. Lust, Attraction and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction. Human Nature 1998; 9(1): 23-52.
- Mackes N, et al. Early Childhood Deprivation is Associated with Alterations in Adult Brain Structure Despite Subsequent Environmental Enrichment. PNAS. 2020. [Available from: https://www.pnas.org/content/117/1/641]
- Gerhardt, S. Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. 2015. Routledge.
- Bowlby, J. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. 2019. Basic Books.