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While Valentine’s Day draws our attention to the topic of love, it is an on-going area of fascination for many humans worldwide. Love has been the focus of music and various forms of literature for centuries, with researchers from areas as diverse as religion, neuroscience and psychology trying to explain what love is, what triggers it and if we can predict if it will endure or not?

So, what is love? There are a variety of answers here depending on who you ask, and also the type of love they are talking about. Hippocratic medicine would define love as a form of illness. This is supported by the symptoms people often report when in love – preoccupation with the loved one, tearfulness, euphoria – these could easily qualify for diagnoses of obsessional illness or a form of depression. This is not a surprise when looking at scientific research though – both neurochemical and brain scanning research has found an overlap between the brain in love, and the brain suffering from a mental illness.   

In the 1970’s psychologists suggested a range of ways of defining the many types of love. While there was a variation in what they found (with some opting for Greek terminology and others multiple combinations of three basic types of love) there was one common conclusion – love is different depending on who the love object is (friend, recent partner), and how long you have been together. Hendrick and Hendrick (1992) suggested that these changes over time effect everyone – with Mania (or obsession) being more likely to be seen in adolescents; Eros (romantic love) in early adulthood; Storge (companionate love) and Pragma (pragmatic love) occurring most in the middle years and Agape (all-giving love) in the later stages of life.

Advances in science supports this – MRI scans of the brain have identified that different parts of the brain are active when looking at pictures of friends than of your partner (Bartels & Zeki, 2000). Also, love differs over time – from the early mad rush of passionate love, which is associated with the rush of oxytocin to the brain and has symptoms similar to mental illness; to the comfortable, companionable love of a long-term partnership. Again science backs this up – brain scans of people looking at pictures of a long term partner indicate additional activity to those relatively newly in love (Acevedo et al., 2012).

Therefore, it is clear that love is not fixed – so if your partner fails to treat you as generously this week as they did when you met, do not panic – maybe they remembered to put the bin out for a change instead.




Acevedo, B.P.; Aron, A.; Fisher, H.E.; & Brown, L.L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159

Bartels, A. & Zeki, S. (2000) The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport, 11(17), 3829-3834

Hendrick, S. & Hendrick, C. (1992). Romantic love. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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