What is Love?
Love of God, love of a child, love of family, love of friends, love of country. Is romantic love different than the love between close friends, self-love or a love of humanity? Is love really blind, unconditional, and thus beyond our control? The science of love is a fascinating blend of neurochemistry, biology and sociology.
The Neurobiology of Love
The chemistry of love revolves around oxytocin, a hormone first known to play a role in childbirth by causing the uterus to contract and the breasts to secrete milk. It further promotes the maternal-infant bond. But more recently we’ve come to understand that oxytocin plays a much broader role in the scope of love.
Oxytocin is made in the pituitary gland, the little hormone control center located in the middle of the brain. Aside from the childbirth, oxytocin plays a role in sexual attraction and sexual intimacy. Studies show high levels of oxytocin before and during sexual activity. Couples that are newly in love have higher levels of oxytocin and it is associated with increased romantic attachment and monogamous bonding.
Oxytocin can be given to someone to instill a feeling of attachment or bonding. It increases trust and decreases fear, causing more generosity and social bonding. The pro-social effects of oxytocin have led to it being called the “love hormone”.
Other hormones play a role in the love process. While estrogen and testosterone are simple players in the lust process, with true love a whole cascade of brain chemistry comes into play. Dopamine increases make us feel satisfied, content, and pleased. Serotonin promotes happiness while norepinephrine stimulates arousal, attentiveness, and focus. All these neurochemicals come together in an intricate chemical dance leading to the feeling of love.
Much More than Chemistry
The Greeks had four words for love – agape, phillia, storge and eros. While there is overlap it is an attempt to categorize the different aspects that we think of as love.
Agape translates as “I love you” in ancient Greek and means unconditional, giving, selfless, spiritual love. Whether love is given in return or not the love for another continues, expecting nothing in return. The love of a child, friend, spouse, or God might be Agape.
The affectionate regard for friends, family and community is Phillia. This is love without passion, the kind that requires a give and take and relies on virtue and equality. Storge refers to the natural affection found in families, such as that of a parent for a child. Storgic love is the “friends first” kind of love.
“Love at first sight”, the romantic physical attraction, the love without reason. This is Eros, the passionate love with sensual desire and longing. The modern variant of the word eros, is erotas, which is more specific to intimate love, but eros does not have to be sexual in nature.
The Greek philosopher Plato described eros as transcending the physical love for another person and being more about appreciating the beauty within that person, or of beauty in and of itself. Plato wrote that the physical attraction for one another is not necessary for love, thus the term platonic is given to mean “without physical attraction”.
Yet another Greek term for love is Pragma, short for pragmatic, meaning the love of the head and not of the heart. This is the love developed with the rational goal of seeking compatible, desirable traits that will help achieve a common goal.
In the 1950s famed psychologist Eric Fromm described “self-love” as different from being arrogant, conceited or narcissistic. This is the love of oneself, taking care of oneself, looking out for ones best interests, and ultimately having a high self-esteem. The Greek philosopher Aristotle also wrote of self-love as being necessary before one can truly love another.
Modern author Ayn Rand expanded on the concept of self-love in her writings. Like Aristotle, she argued that self-love is at the heart of virtuous behavior, although Rand’s version was more in support of a rational egoism than a purely virtuous love. Either way, self-love is an important concept in human emotion and a certain amount of selfishness can have its virtues.
All You Need is Love
How fitting it was that the very first worldwide live television broadcast was the Beatles performing their legendary “All You Need is Love”. Watched by over 150 million people it had meaning that was understood by everyone. It was a clear message that love is everything.
Love is indeed a “many splendored thing” with all the various ways we experience love. Having self-love and agape might be enough. Eros is perhaps the love that drives us most, but unless it mixes in some degree of phillia or pragma, it usually fizzles.
Love is free to give, but can cost us dearly. It knows no bounds and binds us stronger than death. It can’t be bought or sold, as it is priceless. Once again, Lennon-McCartney said it so well, “the love you take is equal to the love you make”.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.