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Neural and Cultural Patterns of Love

Bo-Rin Kim's picture

    Love is one of the most popular topics discussed among different age groups and across different cultures. Its entrancing and addictive nature has encouraged scientists to explore the neurological basis of this emotional phenomenon. However, this paper questions the perspective that love arises from a set pattern of activity in a number of designated neural structures. It instead proposes that the definitions of love set in place by different cultures influence and give rise to unique patterns of neural activity that lead to the experience of love. Thus, love is unique to the individual and does not arise from a generalized pattern of neural activity.

    Different cultures across the globe place a similar large emphasis on the experience of love. Songs, poems, movies and stories about love flood entertainment industries around the world. It is through these images and descriptions fed to us by our society that we learn what love should look and feel like. Love is often presented as involving passionate attraction to another person and addictive rewarding feelings. This strong emphasis placed on love by society could be what drives scientists to research this area and come up with explanations for why love is so powerful.

     Research with fMRI scans of brains of people in love show that love is processed in the ventral tegmental, nucleus accumbens and caudate nuclei. The ventral tegmental is the brain’s central supplier of dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for triggering feelings of reward. This is what gives love its exhilarating and obsessive quality. The nucleus accumbens releases oxytocin, which drives attraction and feelings of bonding with other individuals. Finally, the caudate nuclei are involved in memory and make the experience of love unforgettable (Kluger, 2008). This presents a very rigid neural model of love that suggests that love is processed in the same way in all individuals. Moreover, all these characteristics of love being exhilarating, addictive and memorable are qualities emphasized by society. Hence, in essence, science is being used to confirm and justify societal views of love.

    However, there are also cultures that promote slightly different ideas of love that do not emphasize the addictive, rewarding nature of it, but more of the selfless aspects of love. For example, in several religious cultures, true love is taught to be sacrificially and unconditionally caring for another person without expecting anything in return. In these cultures, while love may still involve the euphoric high, it is not the central identifying factor. Therefore, the love experienced in these cultures would probably arise from a different pattern of neural activity than that described in the Kluger (2009) article. This argument could be tested using fMRI to see if being in love triggers the same brain areas in people who belong to these religious cultures and people who are not religious. If results show that the two groups display different neural patterns, it would indicate that depending on what people value in love and how they define it, different brain pathways are activated. Thus, love can look different in people’s brains. People within the same culture would also probably differ in their neural activity due to other unshared influences on their perception of love, such as personal experiences and beliefs. This implies that there is no innate, universal neural mechanism of love and that it is an individualized experience.

    The Kluger (2008) article above states that brain regions involved in different cognitive processes give rise to love. This implies that there are a number of emotional and cognitive experiences that are involved in love. Moreover, while love is a socially defined and learned construct, these smaller components, such as addiction and memory, are not cultural ideas and can be studied from a strictly biological perspective. As mentioned earlier, addiction and desire are attributed to the ventral tegmental and dopamine. Dopamine makes us desire affection and it makes sharing this affection so satisfying and addictive (Lemonick & Steptoe, 2004). Moreover, memory, another process involved in love, is processed in the caudate nuclei (Kluger, 2008).

     Compatibility is another important component of love. It is argued that humans unconsciously use scent to determine if a potential mate would be a good genetic match or not. Scent, among other things such as taste, is used to detect the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) of a mate. MHC influences tissue rejection and is part of the immune system. Humans are naturally attracted to the scent of people who have a different MHC, as this increases the chances of the womb not rejecting the fetus and carrying the baby to birth (Kluger, 2008). Thus, while love cannot be studied in strict biological terms, some of its subcomponents such as addiction, memory and genetic compatibility can be.

     Some argue that taking drugs such as antidepressants or birth control pills can reduce one’s ability to detect the compatibility of a potential mate (Luscombe, 2009). Powerful emotional experiences that stimulate high levels of adrenaline also seem to distort perceptions and lead people to fall for partners who they are not compatible with (Kluger, 2008). However, culture is another powerful influence that can distort and override the biological systems in place for finding attractive and compatible mates. People often use attractiveness standards perpetuated by society to determine who they want to date and who they choose to give their attention to. Even if someone has very compatible MHC with someone else, if they are not attractive according to society’s standards, they may not even be given the chance to be in a situation where their MHC can get detected. Thus, while culture shapes people’s perceptions of love, it can also influence the subcomponents that make up love. This influence can be so strong that it can potentially override the biological mechanisms that underlie these subcomponents.

    Culture not only affects separate subcomponents, but it also affects how these components are brought together to give rise to love. Since cultures have different ideas of love, they must incorporate different subcomponents into their definitions. Moreover, as these subcomponents arise from different brain areas, various cultural definitions of love also probably give rise to different neural patterns. This may be the reason why it is so difficult to localize love in the brain. It is an experience that results from the collaboration of several different neural processes that is determined by one’s cultural influences. Therefore, while some emotional and cognitive aspects of love, such as reward and genetic compatibility, can be studied and defined with just biological terms, love cannot be studied with this one-dimensional approach. Cultural and social influences must also be taken into account when studying love.

     An individual’s perception of love determines which cognitive subcomponents are activated to what degree. This conception is shaped by the individual’s culture, but also by personal experiences. Thus, while a culture’s pattern of ideas regarding love helps shape the neural activity of an individual in love, it acts in combination with other factors that are unique to the individual. It is therefore arguable that love manifests as a distinct pattern of neural activity in every individual. While there may be overlap between individuals, especially those from the same cultural background, the subjective nature of love makes it a unique experience for every person. Therefore, it seems impossible to determine if someone is in love by simply looking at an fMRI scan of his or her brain. Love does not have a neural signature and therefore the only way to determine if a person is in love would be to take their word for it or to more specifically test if they are in love in terms of the culture’s definition. In this case, a more subjective cultural measure would have to be used.

     The only way to explain love may just be to say that it is a powerful sensation that is created by the collaboration of several different overwhelming feelings and cognitive processes. As culture plays a large role in defining love and determining what collection of feelings would indicate love for a particular person, love is difficult to study from a strict neurobiological perspective. Since love is an experience that is so largely shaped by culture, a more social perspective must also be used in developing explanations for the experience of love. Only this kind of multi-faceted model would be able to account for the individualized nature of love.



Kluger, J. (2008). The science of romance: Why we love. Time. Retrieved from,9171,1704672,00.html
Lemonick, M. D., Steptoe, S. (2004). The chemistry of desire. Time. Retrieved from,9171,993148,00.html
Luscombe, B. (2009). The biology of dating: Why him, why her?. Time. Retrieved from,8599,1876113,00.html


Paul Grobstein's picture

distributed, culturally influenced, subjective experiences

"love is unique to the individual and does not arise from a generalized pattern of neural activity ... science is being used to confirm and justify societal views of love"

That's an intriguingly challenging perspective.  Perhaps one relevant not only to "love" but also to "anxiety," "depression," "addiction," and so forth?  What would change about how we do neuroscientific research if one took it seriously?