Although the concept of “love” sounds like a fairly non-scientific, wishy-washy subject to study, there has been quite a bit of interest in its powers over the years.
Psychologists, of course, are fairly interested in love and the way it impacts the human mind and behaviour. It’s a powerful creature after all. Anyone who has experienced it can attest that it is all-encompassing and often painful.
Love is a difficult subject to study because it is a fairly subjective emotion and can be very different from person to person. Nevertheless, humans have been fascinated by love since the dark ages and that does not seem likely to change.
Below are some of the findings that psychological research has so far uncovered about our old friend love.
Love Vs Lust
Psychologists have found that love is indeed a separate entity to lust. Physical attraction is an important part of love, but they are different beasts. This is why one-night stands rarely come to anything.
Investigators found that when MRI scans of the brain are taken, lust lights up the reward/motivation areas of the brain – the same areas involved in addiction. Whereas love lights up the parts involved in care and empathy.
Lust and love are parts of the same spectrum, but they have different physiological roles within the brain.
Love Can Be Momentary And Longterm
Researchers have found that love can be a “caught-in-the-moment” type of feeling. People who are deeply in love are known to match each other’s facial expressions and poses subconsciously. They can even mimic each other physiologically.
But, at the same time, research has shown that it can also be a long-lasting emotion where we feel motivated to help relieve the other’s suffering and feel moved by their ongoing pain. This can pan out over days, weeks, months or years.
Building Love Takes Work
Researchers that carried out a large meta-analysis (where data from a number of experiments is pooled to obtain a “big picture”) identified patterns in couples which are in love.
These similarities included feeling positive about their other half when they were not around; supporting each other’s growth and plans; and taking on shared experiences that cause both parties to learn and grow together.
Love Can Be Grown
Love is not an entirely passive occurrence that just happens to us. We can develop it and nurture it. Psychologists investigating monks that practice compassion meditation found that their brain alpha waves were significantly different when compared to novice meditators and people who never meditated.
The monks had greater activity in the parts of their brains that deal with positive emotions, in particular – empathy. They also had less activity in the fear sections of the brain and an increase in general connectivity across the whole brain.
Love Has Physical Consequences
Love does not just heal the mind, it protects the body. And, on the opposite side of the coin – loneliness is a risk factor for early death and physical illness. In fact, being chronically lonely carries the same risk of early death as smoking.
Just being part of a church or synagogue gives an individual a sense of belonging and mutual love, and can stave off illness.
Men who are married tend to live longer than those who do not. And if their wife dies, their risk of mortality rises. At this stage, it is not clear whether this correlation is because of the feelings and emotions involved, or because the wife encourages the man to look after himself physically.
Focusing On Love Enhances It
Researchers have found that if we concentrate on and make an effort to care for our loved ones, it increases our feelings of love and happiness. This feeling is mutual and increases the more one focuses on it – in both parties.
Expressing gratitude not only makes the other person feel good, it enhances mood in the one expressing the gratitude too.
Love Is Not Finite
If you really love someone, this does not deplete your love store and mean you have less to go around. In fact, the opposite is true. If love is focused on for one person, the amount we have increases and we find it easier to generate love for others.
Love Is Not Unconditional
Despite “unconditional love” being a well-known phrase, according to psychologists, it isn’t.
To feel love, one needs to firstly feel safety and trust. The prefrontal cortex needs to send signals to the amygdala – the fight-or-flight part of the brain – telling it to chill out and stop panicking.
Individuals who have had a childhood trauma can find it pretty difficult to turn the amygdala off. But, a persistent individual who shows nothing but love and compassion can steadily calm it down and eventually overpower it.
Love Is Catching
If someone displays compassion, caring and empathy, those emotions will spread to those around them. This is perhaps why leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela manage to inspire people to be the best person they can be and calm their fight-or-flight responses.
Love Is Rarely Forever, But It Can Be
The idea of a love that lasts forever is pure Disney. Because humans change so drastically over time, it is no surprise that relationships ebb flow and often collapse.
Although we think of ourselves as “us,” we actually change significantly over the years. This happens in a number of ways – physically (all of our cells have been replaced), psychologically – we respond to things differently than we did 10 years ago, and even the ways in which our brain function.
However, in some couples, psychologists have found that love can persist. They measured the brain waves of couples as they gazed into each other’s eyes. In some elderly couples, their brain patterns were indistinguishable from couples whose love was much fresher.
So, it can happen, but it doesn’t often.
As psychologists continue to study the emotions of humans, no doubt fascinating insight will steadily mount.