What is love?

By Shivani Godbole

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, scene 1, lines 240 – 241

Shakespeare did indeed get it right. Love is a convoluted ‘mind-game’.

If I were to describe love as a scientist, I would call love a panic-stricken addictive gamble. The physical, psychological, and behavioral changes that happen during the process of ‘falling in love’ are closely associated with many disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (repeated thoughts and repetitive actions), panic attacks (feeling flushed, increase in heart rate, dilation of pupils), and gambling addiction. Yet, falling in love is not uncommon, and it happens to many of us. Does that mean love can also be considered a disorder? Or, is love just a beautiful chaos?

Studies have shown an underlying reason behind ‘falling in love’ is the necessity of evolution, specifically survival and reproduction.1 Before getting into the neuroscience of love, it is important to understand the evolution of love (Fig 1).2

Fig 1: Evolution schematic of love (1)

Analyzing love with respect to evolution makes studying love a little easier, as the neuroscience behind the process of love is sadly not simple. Looking for love, or seeking a partner, is the first step and is a primal instinct for all animals, arising from the development of the sex hormones testosterone (in males) and estrogen (in females).3 (Fig. 2)

Falling in love comes next, and along with it comes the ‘wing-man’ hormone, dopamine. (Fig. 2) The brain receives impulses from every viable sexual partner4 , yet we are not attracted to everyone around us. The reason behind selection of a viable sexual partner is that our brain analyses all these impulses and patterns and aligns them with our preconceived pattern and the attributes we find attractive. In humans, the selection is directed by the prefrontal cortex5 to find desirable traits like eye color, height, weight, intelligence, etc., whereas animals go for the strongest partner. Senses also play an important role in the selection process but come with a catch. The gatekeeper, the thalamus, filters out all the senses but one, the smell.6  It is fascinating, yet not surprising that smell is the first sense to have evolved. Pheromones (in animals) and smell (in human) play an essential role in the overall ‘seeking a potential mate’ process (all the deodorant advertisements make sense now).6

After the brain narrows down on the suitable mate, the attributes possessed by that partner, what is called a ‘click’, triggers a chain reaction of dopamine release. The greater the attributes, greater the reward, greater is the release of dopamine and this cycle of gain and reward grows exponentially. This cycle continues up to a point where the brain is satisfied by the dopamine release and the partner does not seem to be interesting anymore. To abrogate this ‘blinker vision’, the brain releases the attention hormone, norepinephrine, and brings the brain back on track with the one person who was originally responsible for the dopamine release. The brain then starts making an effort to search for more ‘rewards’ or ‘attributes’, causing dopamine release.7 Since our brain is on a high alert due to being in love, and this somewhat correlates with having a ‘panic attack’, the high levels of dopamine lead to release of norepinephrine, as it tricks our brain into believing that love is nothing but a ‘fight or flight’ situation.

The question arises, how much reward would the attributes give; what is the value of the patterns/attributes recognized? That is when serotonin raises its monoaminic head and increases the release of norepinephrine, thus interfering with the risk benefit analysis of the brain.8  This is the stage of being ‘blinded by love’. To quote Bojack Horseman, ‘When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.’

Love could be called a gamble and being in love, a gambling addiction. The higher the stakes, the higher the reward. The brain is a prankster; it engineers beginners’ luck in love, making us want to keep on playing. But what if we do not hit the jackpot, if the gamble doesn’t work, then the feeling, once rewarding and beautiful, turns to fear and reward turns to punishment, leading to jealously, doubts, and anger. And if we lose love in the process, the addiction withdrawal phenomenon kicks in, leading to grief, craving, and relapses with a backdrop of fear, which can lead to development of chronic anxiety and depression. These emotional triggers in some cases drive the impulse to stalk, which surprisingly leads to dopamine release.9

On the brighter side, if the gamble does work, then comes the third step of evolution: building a family. Here, along comes the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is known to reduce anxiety, leading to feelings of ‘being comfortable’, and encouraging procreation with the intention of starting a family.10(Fig. 2)

Figure 2: Representation of how different hormones are involved with different stages of love. Source: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/

Now, that we know the neuroscience behind love, we can answer some of the questions such as why dating apps are so popular or why women’s attraction towards men is context specific, or why dating a ‘bad boy’ is so enticing.11

In conclusion, I think it is safe to say that finding a perfect match is life’s greatest prize and although love is complicated, its beautiful and ever evolving.


  • One of the greatest and the most powerful human emotions, love, is governed by the holy trinity of hormones; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Love can be described as a gambling addiction, where higher stakes lead to higher rewards, and it stems from the necessity of existence.


  1. Buss, David M. “The evolution of love.” The new psychology of love (2006): 65-86.
  2. Buss, David M. “The evolution of live in humans.” The new psychology of love (2019): 42-63.
  3. Yovell, Yoram. “Is there a drive to love?.” Neuropsychoanalysis 10.2 (2008): 117-144.
  4. Hoover, Kara C. “Smell with inspiration: the evolutionary significance of olfaction.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143.S51 (2010): 63-74.
  5. Duarte, Isabel Catarina, et al. “The role of Prefrontal Cortex in a Battle of the Sexes Dilemma involving a Conflict between Tribal and Romantic love.” Scientific reports 8.1 (2018): 1-8.
  6. Croy, Ilona, et al. “Peripheral adaptive filtering in human olfaction? Three studies on prevalence and effects of olfactory training in specific anosmia in more than 1600 participants.” Cortex 73 (2015): 180-187.
  7. Fisher, Helen E., Arthur Aron, and Lucy L. Brown. “Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 361.1476 (2006): 2173-2186.
  8. Fisher, Helen E., and J. Anderson Thomson Jr. “10 Lust, Romance, Attachment: Do the Side Effects of Serotonin-Enhancing Antidepressants Jeopardize Romantic Love, Marriage, and Fertility?.” Evolutionary cognitive neuroscience (2007): 245.
  9. Shizgal, Peter, and Andreas Arvanitogiannis. “Gambling on dopamine.” Science 299.5614 (2003): 1856-1858.
  10. Parmar, MS Pooja, and Mr Shams Malik. “Oxytocin-The Hormone of Love.” IOSR Journal of Pharmacy and Byological Sciences (IOSR-JPBS) 12.6 (2017): 1-9.
  11. Meston, Cindy M., and David M. Buss. Why women have sex: Understanding sexual motivations from adventure to revenge (and everything in between). Macmillan, 2009.

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