Psych of love

Category:  News
Wednesday, February 14th, 2018 at 8:00 PM
Psych of love by Macala Leigey
Graphic: Amanda Anstett

The soft pinks and deep reds blur together. The heart-shaped boxes and bushels of romantically toned flowers fill your eyes. The sappy cards, commercialized candy assortments and oversized teddy bears — or whatever large stuffed animal you desire — line the aisles.

It’s Valentine’s Day season and walking into Wal-Mart either makes your heart flutter or impels you into an involuntary gag. Be it based on past experiences, or current relationship status, your reaction to the essence of love, seemingly a matter solely of the heart, may actually have more to do with your brain.

“Our biology and our psychology are inseparable. Therefore, it is likely a series of biopsychological factors that influence whether or not someone falls in love,” Edinboro University Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Wayne Hawley said.

Hawley has done research on the correlation between the brain and love, along the different ways we love.

“How we love, and how we act in relationships, is probably more related to a complex combination of individual factors that determine one’s personality,” he explained.

“More broadly speaking, the psychologist Robert Sternberg argues that there are multiple types of love between adults in relationships: nine possible types in all. The ultimate type of love between people is consummate love. Consummate love is characterized by passion, commitment, and intimacy, which itself is a sense of emotional closeness and sharing.”

Hawley also shared that this “sense of emotional closeness” typically occurs during the early stages of a relationship.

“In humans, it is probably during the early stages of a relationship that our psychological processes really begin to take over as we begin to learn about the individual we are involved with,” explained Hawley. “Do we share the same beliefs, the same interests? Do we feel safe with them, do we trust them, do we have common goals?”

However, while these psychological processes have the heart falling, the mind is, in a sense, rising — or more aptly put, getting “high on love.” 

“A couple of studies have indicated that the interconnected parts of our brains called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens seem to react to pictures of people that participants indicated that they were in love with. Interestingly, these are the same brain regions that play a significant role in drug dependency,” said Hawley.

“The general consensus is that the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine from the neurons that make up the VTA, which send the dopamine to the nucleus accumbens, regulates how pleasurable we find anything, which would include drugs and our relationships.” 

This addiction-inducing neurotransmission process is most common during the beginning stages of a relationship, when both people are still in the curious stages of learning about each other and have an increased mix of interest and attraction.

“Attraction and romantic love are characterized by heightened levels of arousal and desire, which are associated with a surge of energy and euphoria inducing hormones rushing throughout one’s body. In a sense, during the early stages of many relationships, it may be as if one is high on love, or addicted to love,” said Hawley.

He also warned that it “is important to note that these studies in humans are only correlational in nature.”

“What we need to keep in mind is whether or not those changes in the brain are actually responsible for creating the feeling of love, or are they just a consequence of love,” he explained.

Alternatively to when the mind is positively addicted to love, the psychological process of breaking up or being in an unhealthy relationship can lead to a negative neuro response.

According to “The Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breakups,” published by Psychology Today, a study conducted by Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher took 15 people who had recently experienced romantic rejection and put them in an fMRI machine. Fisher then showed the victims of heartache two photographs: one of the person who had just broken up with them and another of a neutral person they had no attachment to.

“When the participants looked at the images of their rejectors, their brains shimmered like those addicts deprived of their substance of choice.”

The Psychology Today article also quoted Fisher in saying that the same study “found activity in a region associated with feelings of deep attachment, and activity in a region that’s associated with pain.”

This study concluded that breakups can lead to a mindset of withdrawal and pain. Pain that is thought to “notify us how important social ties are to human survival and to warn us not to sever them lightly,” according to the article.

“There really is not much research out there with regard to the biological basis of heartbreak, make-ups or why we stay in certain relationships. In general, all of the concepts [of breakups] probably have something to do with the prefrontal cortex, or closely related brain areas that are involved with decision making, social rejection, empathy and other forms of emotionality,” said Hawley. 

Although breakups are expected to generate a negative reaction, being in an unhealthy relationship can lead to its own problems.

“Sometimes people get together for the wrong reasons; they change or are unwilling to change something that is important to their partner,” said Director of Edinboro University Counseling and Psychological Services Dr. Michael Bucell regarding unhealthy relationships.

He continued: “Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by a relationship partner are extremely unhealthy, [and] issues regarding dominance and control will likely be present [in an unhealthy relationship]. Hoping for the partner to change will not work and remaining in such an unhealthy relationship will generally cause serious harm to your well-being.”

Conversely, Bucell shared that “healthy relationships involve happiness and satisfaction, care and respect for one another, liking the other person as well as loving them.” He continued: “All relationships experience rough patches, [but] open, honest communication is the starting point for getting through them.”

Although specialized in counseling and psychological services, Bucell has heard on multiple occasions that love actually occurs when the heart and brain are least aware of it.

“I’m frequently told by students that love happens when you least expect it. So, don’t insist on making it happen,” he said.

Whether the cheesy trademarks of Valentine’s Day thrill you or disgust you, or whether you’re a die-hard hopeless romantic or satisfied with solitude singlehood, love — in any form — is a psychological and biological process that you can’t deny. 

Or maybe it’s just all in your head.

Macala Leigey can be reached at

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