What is love? Neuroscience reveals 13 ways to know you’ve found it

We’ve all asked ourselves the question, “what is love?”

It’s one of the most perplexing of all of the human experiences.

It seems the more we learn about love, the more we don’t understand it. And we spend a whole lifetime learning more it.

The reality is that love can mean something different to everyone.

Neuroscience, however, can explain many of the common behavior patterns people display when they have the feeling of “being in love”.

Do you want to learn more? Keep on reading for the 13 most common ways to know you’ve found it, according to neuroscientists.

What is love?

First, what is love, according to neuroscientists?

It’s one of the most studied, but least understood, of all the human behaviors.

A major study over 20 years ago studied 166 societies and found evidence of romantic love in 147 of them. The conclusion of the researchers: “there’s good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature.”

The world-renowned anthropologist and expert on romantic love Helen Fisher has concluded that love is much more than an emotion. It operates at a level so deeply rooted in our biology that we struggle to control it:

“I began to realize that romantic love is not an emotion. In fact, I had always thought it was a series of emotions, from very high to very low. But actually, it’s a drive. It comes from the motor of the mind, the wanting part of the mind, the craving part of the mind. The kind of part of the mind when you’re reaching for that piece of chocolate, when you want to win that promotion at work. The motor of the brain. It’s a drive.”

This biological drive takes over, and we experience love:

“But the main characteristics of romantic love are craving: an intense craving to be with a particular person, not just sexually, but emotionally. It would be nice to go to bed with them, but you want them to call you on the telephone, to invite you out, etc., to tell you that they love you.”

11 signs it’s love, according to neuroscience

Neuroscientists have started to identify the most common experiences of love.

Below, we share the 10 most common experiences in terms of people’s behaviors and what happens in the brain.

Is this what’s happening in your body and brain as you experience the emotion of love? It’s the best way to know whether you are truly experiencing love.

1) Love makes men feel like heroes

When a guy falls in love, it’s often because the girl has triggered something deep inside him. Something he desperately needs.

What is it?

To genuinely fall in love, a guy needs to feel like he’s a protector and provider. And that she genuinely admires him for this.

In other words, he needs to feel like her ‘hero’ (not an action hero like Thor though).

And the kicker is that a man won’t fall in love with a woman until he feels this deep emotion.

There’s actually a psychological term for what I’m talking about here. It’s called the hero instinct. This concept is generating a lot of buzz at the moment as a way to explain why men fall in love — and who they fall in love with.

I know it might all seem kind of silly. In this day and age, women don’t need someone to rescue them. They don’t need a ‘hero’ in their lives.

But this misses the point about what the hero instinct is all about.

The hero instinct is an instinctive need that men have to step up to the plate for the woman in this life. This is deeply rooted in male biology. And embedded in their DNA.

Although women may not need a hero, a man is compelled to be one. And if you want him to fall in love with you, then you have to let him.

But how do you trigger this instinct in him?

The trick is to make him feel like a hero in an authentic way. And there are things you can say, messages you can send, requests you can make to make him feel like your provider and protector.

If you want some help doing this, check out James Bauer’s excellent free video here.

He tells you everything you need to know about the hero instinct, including how to trigger it in your man.

I don’t often recommend videos but the hero instinct is one of the most fascinating concepts in relationship psychology I’ve come across. And James Bauer is the real deal when it comes to relationship advice.

Here’s a link to his unique video again.

Some ideas in life are game-changers. And when it comes to relationships, I think this is one of them.

2) Love makes you feel addicted

When you feel like you’re in love, you can’t get enough of it.

There’s a reason for this.

Neuroscientists have established we respond to love in the same way we respond to drugs: once we’ve experienced it, we want more.

This is because love creates addiction. Thinking about the person you love triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitters dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin (dopamine is the so-called “pleasure chemical”) into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers—the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens.

This experience gives the lover an extraordinarily addictive high.

Love is considered an addiction for the simple fact that we can’t get enough of it. We seek love and adoration, acceptance and community at every turn in our lives.

The mix of affection, attraction, and arousal triggers fireworks in the brain.

A study found that once our brains have gotten a taste of something, it’s very hard for us to ignore it. Our brain will continue wanting to activate those feel-good chemicals, which is why love is sometimes described as an addiction.

This is also why break-ups can be so messy to deal with.

3) Love makes you feel obsessed

what is love

This common behavior is really interesting.

Have you ever fallen in love and noticed that you’ve become obsessed with your partner?

There’s an explanation for this.

According to scientists, love triggers the parts of our brain that are also activated in the brains of cocaine addicts.

Additionally, the flood of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin when feeling in love gives the body such an incredible high. Yet the body always seeks to be in balance. Therefore, when your body returns to a more balanced state, it gives the feeling of losing control.

All of these things contribute to having that addictive feeling.

4) Love will make you experience recklessness

what is love

If you’ve ever been in love, then you know the term “crazy in love” is a real thing.

Research confirms that we’re more willing to take risks when we’re in love.

The prefrontal cortex—the brain’s mechanism for logic and reasoning—drops a gear when we’re in love. At the same time, the amygdala—the warning us against threats—also works less.

The result of these effects is that we end up looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. This makes us make less-than-ideal choices when our brains are preoccupied with love.

When we are in love, we have no need to be defensive, and we tend to see things from a positive point of view which stops us from questioning our actions, thoughts, and feelings, and it can leave us wondering what the heck just happened.

5) Love can make men emotionally unavailable

Men want deep and intimate companionship just as much as women do.

So why are so many men emotionally unavailable to women?

An emotionally unavailable man is typically someone who is unable to emotionally commit to a relationship with you. He wants to keep things casual and undefined, not because he doesn’t love you, but to avoid commitments he doesn’t think he can handle.

I know about emotionally unavailable men because I am one myself. You can read more about my story here.

If you’ve ever been with a man who suddenly goes cold and pulls away, you’ll see a lot of myself in them.

However, the problem isn’t you. The problem isn’t even with him

The simple truth is that male and female brains are biologically different. For instance, did you know that the emotional processing center of the female brain is much larger than in men?

That’s why women are more in touch with their emotions. And why guys can struggle to process feelings, leading to serious commitment issues.

If you’ve ever been let down by an emotionally unavailable man before, blame his biology rather than him.

I learned this from relationship expert Amy North. She’s smart, straightforward and one of the world’s leading experts on relationship psychology and why men act the way they do.

In her excellent free video, she gives you the solution for dealing with emotionally unavailable men.

The key is communicating with him in a way that he’ll actually understand. Because there are words and phrases you can say that will instantly draw him to you.

Amy North reveals exactly what to say to make a man commit to a loving relationship with you. Her scripts work surprisingly well on even the coldest and most commitment-phobic men.

Here’s a link to Amy North’s free video again.

If you want science-based techniques to attract men and get them to commit to you, this video is well worth checking out.

6) Love and lust can happen at the same time—and not necessarily for the same person

According to neuroscientists, love and lust appear to be separate (but overlapping) neural responses in the brain.

They both produce a “high”, they’re both “addictive”, but they’re different enough that they can coexist.

Here’s the most interesting fact:

They are distinct enough that you can lust after one person while being in love with another.

Obviously, this can cause real problems in a relationship if you love one person but lust after another.

However, you can use this knowledge to actively focus on the person you love so that you develop a stronger attachment to them. Over time, you’ll increase the presence of oxytocin and vasopressin in your brain, kicking the neural response of lust into gear.

7) The eyes are bigger than the heart

what is love

According to researchers, men and women behave differently when in love.

When a man is in love he is constantly on the lookout for visual cues of love. His visual cortex is more active when love is triggered in the brain, and he will continue to look for visual confirmation in his life that the love is real.

Women, on the other hand, don’t require visual cues to know that they are in love or that they have a strong bond with someone.

They seem to rely more on inner feelings of love.

8) Love gives you a sense of purpose

We all need to live meaningful lives and to dedicate ourselves to the people we care about.

I know this because I’ve recently created an online course on taking responsibility for our lives. What I teach is the importance of having a sense of purpose and taking action every day towards it.

And I think a sense of purpose is incredibly important in a loving relationship, especially for men.

Conventional wisdom says that men only fall for exceptional women – maybe she has an incredible personality or is a firecracker in bed. That we love someone for who they are.

However, I think this way of thinking is dead wrong.

Men care less about the attributes of a woman than they do about how the relationship makes him feel about himself.

Does the relationship provide him a sense of pride and purpose? Does it fit within his identity… the way he wants to see himself as a man?

That’s what the hero instinct is all about. I mentioned this concept above.

Men have a biological drive to feel needed, to feel essential, and to provide for the woman he cares about.

The hero instinct speaks to the built in desire men posses for something in life that goes beyond sex and even love.

For a relationship to be successful, it must give men a sense of meaning and purpose. That you genuinely want and need to have him around. Not as a mere accessory, ‘best friend’, or ‘partner in crime’.

How do you trigger the instinct in your man? And give him the sense of purpose he craves?

The best place to start is to watch this free video by relationship psychologist James Bauer. You can watch the video here.

James reveals the exact phrases you can say, texts you can send, and little requests you can make to trigger his hero instinct.

By triggering this instinct, he’ll immediately see you in a whole new light. Because you’ll be unlocking a version of himself he’s always longed for.

9) Love is a blur

what is love

It’s true that love can make you feel like you are flying on a cloud, or that everything in life is as it should be.

That’s because love can mess with your brain.

However, according to research, women who are in love tend to have an overactive hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that triggers memory keeping, as compared with men.

That’s why women are more likely to remember special dates and occasions, and why men are likely to forget to buy something for Valentine’s Day.

A key lesson for men in relationships: women remember almost everything!

10) Eye contact is the gateway to the heart

what is love

Have you ever gazed into your lover’s eyes and lost yourself for a moment?

Your brain is working really hard to process the information it receives from your eyes, and when you get “lost” in the eyes of another, your brain doesn’t know what to do with that information.

Newborns and lovers have this in common: they make eye contact to form an emotional connection.

Eye contact between lovers to form an emotional connection isn’t just a romantic notion. It’s a biological reality, according to researchers.

The connection that is made can solidify feelings of love and make it all the more real.

11) Promiscuity and monogamy are influenced by the chemicals in your brain

It turns out that if your partner has cheated on you, it might not actually be their fault. Some brains are wired to seek out love in any form it can get.

However, studies have shown that we can change our cheating ways by introducing higher levels of the “feel good” hormones like oxytocin, which allow us to be happy in our current love arrangement, rather than go looking for love in all the wrong places.

12) Physical connectedness

what is love

According to research, love hormones also contribute to the intense sexual chemistry between new couples.

Oxytocin along with vasopressin are also present in our bodies when we’re in love. These are hormones connected to nursing, mother-infant attachment, and pregnancy.

Also called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is released during sex, right after the climax, to help couples develop a deeper social bond. It helps deepen feelings of attachment.

Oxytocin can also give feelings of contentment and security. However, vasopressin is the chemical associated with long-term and monogamous relationships.

The difference between the two chemicals may be the reason why passion fades as couples develop a stronger attachment to each other.

13) Love is blind

what is love

Believe it or not, there’s also a scientific basis to the old adage that “love is blind.”

When we’re in love, we deactivate the neural pathways associated with negative emotions—like judgment or fear.

Our brains process negative and positive emotions using two different neuropathways—the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens for positive emotions and nucleus accumbens to the amygdala for negative emotions. Love hormones tend to block the latter neuropathway.

So basically, the brain’s capacity to make critical assessments is lessened when we feel love towards someone.

How to tell if it’s love or lust, according to experts

Lust is part of the early stages of love. After all, you can’t fall in love with someone you don’t feel physically connected with.

However, in some cases, people don’t progress to love and just remain in lust with someone. Worse, it becomes an unhealthy obsession.

Here are some signs you might not be in love—but simply in lust—according to experts.

1) When your primary focus is the other person

what is love

Love can make you addicted to someone, especially during the early stages of a relationship. It’s part of the chemical process of falling in love.

However, if you’ve become obsessively focused on the other person, that they’re everything you can think of all the time, it’s no longer love.

According to psychologist and relationship expert Jonathan Marshall:

“When that other person becomes our raison d’être, it’s too much. When the other person becomes your god, when your inner compass gets lost in the relationship and in the other person, then I think you’re in trouble…

“Falling in love is a bit of a sickness because we go a bit insane, but if that insanity lasts for a long time, and you can’t find your inner compass, then I think that’s a sign it isn’t in balance.”

2) He doesn’t feel essential around her

Men have a built-in desire for something that goes beyond love or sex.

Simply put, men have a biological drive to feel essential to the woman in his life. Feeling essential is what often separates “love” from “lust”.

This biological drive compels men to provide for and protect women. He wants to step up for her, feel essential, and be appreciated for his efforts.

Relationship psychologist James Bauer dubs it the hero instinct. I’ve talked about this concept above.

James Bauer argues that men are not especially complicated; they’re just driven by primal instincts when it comes to women. We all know that instincts are powerful drivers of human behavior. James simply takes this a step further and applies it to the romantic behavior of men.

I don’t often pay much attention to new fads in psychology. However, I think the hero instinct is a compelling explanation for what drives men romantically.

No one is saying that women need a hero to take care of them. Today women can change a tire, open their own jars, and generally fend for themselves in life.

While women may not need a hero, this doesn’t mean men still don’t want to feel like one.

That’s why it’s essential that women understand what the hero instinct is all about and how they can use it to their advantage.

Check out this free video by James Bauer. He explains what the hero instinct is really about and how women can trigger it in their man.

3) When their growth or independence threatens you

what is love

Real love is supportive. It’s about wanting the best for your partner, even if sometimes that doesn’t include you.

You know it’s only lust or obsession if the other person’s success as an individual scares you.

Matchmaking and relationship expert Rori Sassoon explains:

“When someone is obsessed with you, they [might not] like the idea of you growing as a person or having any independence. But in healthy love, each partner empowers one another to be the best version of themselves.”

If you love someone, you want them to be happy. And that involves letting them grow into a full and capable person.

4) When you’re overthinking every little thing

what is love

Our first encounter with love is normally riddled with anxiety and insecurity. It’s completely normal.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Amanda Zayde:

“It is important to note that everyone has some relationship anxiety, and that’s to be expected.”

However, it’s not healthy when the anxiety incapacitates you to so much extent.

Dr. Zayde adds:

“However, if you find yourself hypervigilant for clues that something is wrong, or if you experience frequent distress that impacts your daily life, please, take some time to address it. Everyone deserves to feel secure and connected in their relationships.”

Real love gives you comfort and security. It doesn’t add to your insecurities.

5) Idealization

what is love

In the early stages of love, it’s natural to “idealize” a potential partner. We want them to be who we’ve always dreamed of.

Author and psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff says:

“In the early stages of a relationship, when the sex hormones are raging, lust is fueled by idealization and projection—you see what you hope someone will be or need them to be—rather than seeing the real person, flaws and all.”

But often, when we really love someone, we come to accept them for who they really are—including the parts we don’t necessarily like.

If you find yourself idealizing your partner too much or you’re trying to make them somebody else, you know it’s not true love.

6) It’s all about the sex

what is love

Sexual chemistry is important in all romantic relationships. It’s not just crucial during the early phase of dating, but sex should be there to sustain intimacy, even when you’ve been together for years.

However, if it’s all about sex, then it might be just lust. Real love is about companionship, the meeting of the minds, and friendship, not just physical connection.

Dr. Orloff adds:

“Pure lust is based solely on physical attraction and fantasy, it often dissipates when the “real person” surfaces. It’s the stage of wearing rose-colored glasses when he or she “can do no wrong.”

Intense romantic love can last a lifetime

If you don’t believe that love can last a lifetime, you better believe it now.

According to a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, it is rare but possible.

The researchers compared the active regions of people in long-term relationships to the brain activities of people who’ve just fallen in love.

And the surprising results indicate similar brain activities in both groups.

According to psychology researcher Adoree Durayappah:

“The key to understanding how to sustain long-term romantic love is to understand it a bit scientifically. Our brains view long-term passionate love as a goal-directed behavior to attain rewards.”

If you want to sustain love for a long time, you need to keep doing things that trigger the reward system in our days.

Durayappah advises:

“As we move from early-stage love to long-term love, our bond attachment grows. And when we perform actions that make our partner happy, we enhance and maintain the relationship by working towards our goal of sustaining the rewards aforementioned.”

Takeaway

Whether you are falling in love for the first time or have been around the block a time or two, consider how your brain is actually controlling your experience of love.

We think that love comes from the heart, but the truth is that it is the result of a hard-working brain trying to make sense of the world we present to it on a regular basis.

I know this because I’ve been an emotionally unavailable man my whole life. My video above reveals more.

And learning about the hero instinct has made it crystal clear why I’m like this.

It’s not often that a mirror gets held up to my lifetime of relationship failure. But that’s what happened when I discovered the hero instinct. I ended up learning more about myself than I bargained for.

I’m 39. I’m single. And yes, I’m still looking for love.

After watching James Bauer’s video and reading his book, I realize that I’ve always been emotionally unavailable because the hero instinct was never triggered in me.

Watch James’ free video here for yourself.

My relationships with women involved everything from ‘best friends with benefits’ to being ‘partners in crime’.

In hindsight, I’ve always needed more. I needed to feel that I was the rock in a relationship. Like I was providing something to my partner that no one else could.

Learning about the hero instinct was my “aha” moment.

For years, I wasn’t able to put a finger on why I would get cold feet, struggle to open up to women, and fully commit to a relationship.

Now I know exactly why I’ve been single most of my adult life.

Because when the hero instinct isn’t triggered, men are unlikely to commit to a relationship and forge a deep connection with you. I never could with the women I was with.

To learn more about this fascinating new concept in relationship psychology, watch this video here.

Notable replies

  1. Avatar for Robyn Robyn says:

    Hi My nmae is Robyn .
    I was a bit peeved with the article "What Is Love’ as it was exclusively heterosexual.
    I would be VERY interested in these "neuroscientists’ “evaluation” of love between two women and/or two men.
    Sure - some of the OBVIOUS things would apply like obsession bonding lust etc. but in several places this article kept pointing out the differences between women and men.
    Cheers
    Robyn :slight_smile:

  2. Not everybody in this world is a homosexual. Not everybody who speaks on love and relationships is required to include homosexuals or anyone else for that matter. whoever wrote this article wrote based on their research and if they didn’t research homosexuality why speak on it? so then you can get upset because the wrong thing was said or referenced? We accept homosexuals and all that, but don’t force your ideologies and inclusion on everybody else. No one is required to rewrite their ideas and research to include something that they probably don’t know about it. this research wasn’t based on that so he didn’t speak on that.

  3. Avatar for Namyk Namyk says:

    Excellent article I have all those fillings. Good research.

  4. To look at love from a biological standpoint is to explore it completely. I applaud Robyn for pointing out a flaw in the research: it does not take into account several variables that would leave conclusions such as the ones seen here unfounded. Science, and research in general, is a process by nature where hypotheses are continuously challenged. To say that we are going to ignore an aspect of the topic at hand for the sake of keeping the argument convenient if entirely unscientific. Love being experienced beyond the heterosexual experience is absolutely a question worthy of merit in this discussion. Otherwise, the claim that this is scientific or research based needs to be eliminated, or to use such a broad term as “love” without specifying a focused subset (heterosexual, romantic monogamous, U.S.-centric ideals) of it on the outset is a necessary revision. The sources cited in the article are merely more thought and opinion pieces that align the neuroscience of craving food, substance abuse/addiction, and Wikipedia definitions with no concrete evidence that this is, in any way, conclusive data or scientifically supported.

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Lachlan Brown

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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