The science behind love: what does it actually mean?

by | Aug 2, 2021

The concept of love has always been a recurring, central theme in fiction, music, and art. Even ancient Greek philosophers were fascinated with the idea of love and have attempted to figure out what it means.

Unlike these scholars of old who’d focused on the various types of love like familial love or empathetic love, this article is more concerned with romantic love (or what those Greek philosophers would term ‘eros’).

As youths, we are at a stage in our lives where we may begin to feel it take root, and wonder if it may blossom into something more.

At the end of the day, however, love isn’t easy to comprehend. That’s why this article will try to break it down for you, scientifically.

Read on to know more about what love means, both biologically and psychologically, and about the 5 love languages!

Before we get into what love means scientifically, we need to differentiate between 2 similar emotions: love and infatuation.

Cambridge dictionary defines love as such: “To like another adult very much and be romantically and sexually attracted to them, or have strong feelings of liking a friend or person in your family.”

Meanwhile, it defines infatuation as “having a very strong but not usually lasting feeling of love for someone or something.”

In short, the difference between love and infatuation is how enduring the feeling is. While both are equally intense, you know it’s infatuation if it burns out eventually.

In fact, having a crush on someone is literally infatuation! The slang can be traced back to 1806 when it meant “person one is infatuated with.”

What does love mean in biology?

What love means in biology

That heady sensation you get upon seeing the object of your affection has a biological explanation.

The initial stage of love—attraction—is when the “feel-good” hormone called dopamine is produced in large amounts and “rewards” your brain whenever you do something pleasurable.

In brain scans of people who are in love, the “reward” centres of the brain become hyperactive when these people are shown pictures of those they’re attracted to. Conversely, these reward areas die down when they’re shown photos of someone they feel neutral towards.

Dopamine is also responsible for reducing appetite and increasing restlessness, so it’s technically possible to be so in love that you won’t hunger and will suffer insomnia!

However, if your crush does transform into your significant other, you won’t always feel euphoria from dopamine. Instead, the chemical oxytocin comes into play.

Oxytocin is released when bonds are fostered, such as spending quality time with your partner. But, it also does get released when more platonic ties are being forged, such as that with parent and child, or between friends.

Biologically speaking, love means the release of certain hormones that promote feelings of ecstasy and in the longer term, stronger ties between couples!

What does love mean in psychology?

American psychologist Robert Sternberg devised something known as the “triangular theory of love” in 1986.

This theory suggests that love can be understood in 3 parts: (1) intimacy, (2) passion, and (3) commitment.

Each of these components makes up a different aspect of love.

What is love?

Intimacy

According to Sternberg, this component involves the connectedness one feels for another, and it’s what fosters warmth in a loving relationship.

In his research, he found that things like a desire to enhance your loved one’s welfare, experienced joy, having a high regard for your loved one, and being able to depend on them—among other things—are common displays of intimacy.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of things you have to feel to experience intimacy.

Passion

The next component of the triangle is passion. Passion is the motivator of romance, physical attraction, and other related sensations in a relationship.

If intimacy is “warm”, passion is “hot”. In his paper, Sternberg quotes that this is “a state of intense longing for union with the other.”

While it is lovemaking that dominates this aspect of love, other needs such as self-esteem and self-actualisation also contribute to the experience of passion.

Commitment

The final component, commitment, involves a short and long-term aspect. In the short term, one decides that they love another person, while in the long term, one commits to maintain a relationship.

These 2 aspects don’t go hand in hand; it’s possible to decide to love someone but also not commit to upkeep your relationship with that person.

Commitment is arguably as important as intimacy and passion, even though it lacks the “heat” that’s present in the other 2 components, as Sternberg states.

Naturally, as with other relationships that can have their highs and lows, commitment is what keeps a relationship alive and going.

How the 3 parts work together

Intimacy, passion, and commitment aren’t separate components. In a relationship, these parts work together, and different combinations result in different outcomes for the relationship.

How love works

Firstly, there’s non-love. Sternberg mentions that this is the absence of all 3 components, and this makes up the majority of our personal relationships that involve casual interactions.

Next, there’s what he terms “infatuated love”, where only the passion component is at work. To Sternberg, this is the phenomenon of love at first sight that can be characterised by quickened heartbeats and heightened hormonal production.

Romantic love, on the other hand, is intimacy and passion combined. According to Sternberg, couples who experience romantic love are not just physically attracted to one another—they also share an emotional bond.

There’s also companionate love where intimacy and commitment come together. Commonly found in long-term married couples where physical attraction (passion) has mostly faded, Sternberg deems this as a committed friendship in marriage.

Passion plus commitment is known as fatuous love. This type of love is the sort of whirlwind romance you typically find in fiction, and it’s the most prone to shotgun marriages and divorce according to Sternberg.

Consummate love is perhaps the most ideal according to this theory, where all 3 components are present and in harmony. This is the type of love which most of us aim for in a romantic relationship, and undoubtedly, the hardest to achieve.

Finally, we have empty love. Only commitment is present in this type of love, and it’s the kind that’s most commonly seen in stale marriages, with physical attraction (passion) and closeness (intimacy) diminishing over the years.

In sum, according to psychology, the meaning of love can manifest and take on different forms, depending on whether one feels bonded, attracted to, and/or has a desire to commit to a romantic relationship!

The 5 love languages explained and what they mean for you

In 1992, a love counselor named Gary Chapman wrote a book on the “5 love languages”.

He noted that everyone has a preference for how they’d like love to be expressed towards them, and that different people had their own meanings of love, based on his counselling experience for failing marriages.

Many of these marriages were breaking down because couples didn’t know each other’s love languages, and only knew how to express love in the way they liked, not what their partner liked.

The 5 love languages are quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, physical touch, and words of affirmation.

5 love languages

Sourced from Medium

1.) Quality time

As the name suggests, people with this love language really appreciate it whenever their partner gives them their undivided attention.

Love means active listening and good eye contact, so it’s best to communicate with them by simply lending a listening ear and not be so quick to give your own input.

2.) Receiving gifts

For individuals who speak this love language, the meaning of love isn’t limited to receiving gifts—it’s the thought and effort that their partner has put into the gift that they truly appreciate.

Taking the time to select a gift you think they’d like tells them that you know them well.

3.) Acts of service

Doing the laundry, going out on an errand, washing the dishes: these are examples of what love means to people with this love language.

It’s these little, everyday actions to alleviate their burdens that convey their partner cares about them.

4.) Physical touch

Interpersonal synchronisation

Love means embracing, holding hands, or any other forms of physical intimacy for people with this as their love language; it isn’t just sexual intercourse!

Essentially, physical proximity with their partners tells them they’re loved.

5.) Words of affirmation

Vocalising your love is the way people with this love language prefer love to be expressed to them.

Love to them means compliments, praise, and encouragement either in the form of letters, texts, or having it simply being spoken.

What knowing the 5 love languages means for you

To know your love language and what love means for you, you can take this free test to find it out!

Now that you know about the 5 love languages—and if you already took the test, what your primary love language is—you probably want to know how this information will benefit you.

Knowing about the 5 love languages means that you can now better convey how you’d like your significant others to express their love in a way that’s meaningful to you. Additionally, you can either try to guess or just directly ask your partner what their love language is.

It’s Dr. Chapman’s hope that couples will be more empathetic to each other’s love languages and be selfless lovers to promote contentment and stability in relationships.

Or in the case of biology, stimulate the production of dopamine and oxytocin, and for psychology, strive for the ultimate goal that is intimacy, passion, and commitment combined!

Conclusion

I hope that this article has explained what love means from a scientific perspective and how to use the 5 love languages to your advantage!

Do check out a similar article on the science of why we vibe with certain people if you enjoyed reading this one.

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