Updated: Feb 5, 2020
By Emily Kaloudis
Unless you have just been dumped and find yourself sobbing into a pint of ice cream, love is usually considered a good thing. Maternal love, romantic love, it all seems great. But is it? The amount of time the average person spends thinking about love is comparable to time spent thinking about survival needs, such as food or sleep. Is this time well spent? Most people consider love to be an emotion; a very strong and prevalent emotion that we may even be able to control if we put in enough effort. In reality, love does not quite fit the profile of an emotion. An emotion is a short physiological response to an external stimulus, accompanied by a specific mental state. Love is not a fleeting, minute long feeling. Love is something present from birth to death, meaning it is closer to a motivation like hunger and thirst, rather than an emotion such as happiness or sadness (Burunat, 2019).
Moreover, love is not something we can control. However, simply lumping love in with basic instinctual motivations does not feel entirely right either. Maternal love is as necessary to human development as any number of other physiological motivations to keep us alive. Abandonment by a mother almost always leads to death of her baby (Burunat, 2019). We often hear tales of a mother’s love for her children leading her to complete feats beyond her own imagination, commonly known as “hysterical strength”. Romantic love is a motivator too, in a way that is quite unique to humans. An organism’s fitness is determined by the amount of genes they pass on to the next generation, and this is very dependent on finding a suitable partner with which to procreate. In other animals partners are chosen for their superior genes and traits, but humans usually choose them based on love. Neither maternal nor romantic love is a choice, it is a necessity throughout human existence and survival that lasts a lifetime.
So, if love is not an emotion controlled by hectic hormones rushing around in our brains, what is it? Emotions are largely controlled by the limbic system, but motivations such as hunger, thirst, and sleep are regulated by the hypothalamus. At all times there are thousands of chemicals being shifted around between the neurons in the brain, causing an influx of ions and triggering a specific response. Both emotions and motivations (as well as every other reflex, thought, and movement performed by humans) are controlled in this way. Simply shifting around chemicals and ions between different neurons is the basis of complex life in animals, and these are the same chemicals that can be manipulated by drugs. When we start to think about them this way it becomes more clear why and how love can be considered addictive. Certain chemical combinations cause us to feel better than others, and love can be responsible for both kinds.
Oxytocin and dopamine are common examples of these “feel good” chemicals. Oxytocin can easily be mimicked by ecstasy (hence the drug’s name), and cocaine functions as a faux version of dopamine. Burunat also discusses how “broken heart syndrome”, scientifically dubbed Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can be caused by both stress following the loss of a loved one as well as drug withdrawal (Burunat 2019). This is another piece of evidence pointing to the association between love and addiction.
Love is not an emotion, but motivations can cause emotions such as happiness, anger, passion, etc. Some of the side effects of love are more pleasurable than others, in a very similar manner to other addictive things. Every high has a low, whether discussing drugs or relationships. The chemicals in our brains are in control of how we feel regarding certain people and how we respond to these stimuli are not entirely unlike how we respond to drugs. If it makes you feel good, you will seek out more. If it makes you feel worse, you will avoid it at all costs. While we are not in control of who or what we love, it remains that love is a powerful thing that is imperative to our survival.
Burunat, E. (2019). Love is a physiological motivation (like hunger, thirst, sleep or sex). Medical Hypotheses, 129, 109225. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2019.0