Updated: Sep 22
This article is inspired by a single question: What happens in the brain when we love? The object of our love can be anyone and anything. Anything that I could conceive in my mind and perceive through our senses qualified, encompassing people, animals, objects, and even ideas. However, the search for relevant literature was vastly limited by the grip of amatonormativity on research and thinking. This limitation redirected the trajectory of my exploration. It became important to note the constraints, their consequences and the alternative positions. From a general Google search on the neurobiology of love, to academic inquiries on Google scholar of the same, everything led me to research concerned with romantic or maternal love. It suggested that the perception of love is equated to these two forms, and there didn't seem to be any room for examining anything else. In this article I posit the two possible causes. Firstly, the limitations of language. Secondly and crucially, amatonormativity.
The ancient Greeks drew clear in the different forms of love in their language. Agape referred to God’s love for men, Philia referred to the love for family, friends and activities and Storgé denoted the love between parent and children. In comparison, The vocabulary in English seems limited. Using a single word to refer to the diverse recipients of one’s affection isn’t the crux of the issue though. Rather, what is problematic is the apparent hierarchisation of the objects of love. It stems from amatonormativity. Coined by Elizabeth Brake, this term brings attention to the widespread assumption that every individual seeks a long term, dyadic romantic relationship. In other words, the idea that romantic love is a universal goal. Amatonormativity is inspired by heteronormativity (the idea that only heterosexuality is a normal and/or natural expression of human sexuality). I invite readers to reconsider their belief in the hierarchy in love, if it exists.
The evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin observes that many cultures embrace the full spectrum of love. The West suffers from a narrow attitude on this topic, resulting from the tendency to perceive a hierarchy in love: parental love has to be followed by romantic love. The primary goal is to find a soulmate, without whom our lives allegedly remain unfulfilled. Then comes the love for siblings, relatives, etc. At the bottom rung are friends.
Considering the global influence of the West, this view isn't restricted to just one part of our world. Machin’s work emphasises the need to restructure this hierarchy of love. Her work illustrates that friendships can provide a space for understanding and emotional intimacy extending beyond what can be experienced with a lover. By carefully nurturing and investing in friendships, by reasserting and celebrating their love, an individual can find room to be their authentic selves.
There has been an oversaturation within different forms of media about romantic love. One may think of any love song, it’s most likely about a romantic pursuit. This isn’t an issue in itself, since art is one of the many ways we try to make sense of the complexities of love, albeit in its lopsided connotation.
The scientific community is not immune to this skewed connotation and amatonormativity either. Though the articles on the neurobiology of love were not heteronormative, they were both allonormative and amatonormative. In fact, Machin admits to beginning her study on love with the consideration of romantic love.
The lack of romantic or parental love does not make us incomplete. But letting go of the love that exists in our friendships will damage us. There’s a strong correlation between the characteristics of our social network and our mental and physical health, our longevity and general life satisfaction (Lunstad 2010). This may sound absurd, since our notion of a healthy life has a few essentials: a balanced diet, physical activity, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. But the evidence to support these findings has been gathered over a span of two decades. In another study Lunstad concluded that being within a supportive social network reduced the risk of mortality by 50 per cent. It’s more influential on our health than maintaining a healthy BMI. Her study has been followed by several more studies and the results remain unchanged.
In an economy where career takes precedence over the conventional goals of life like marriage or expanding one’s family, it is common for people to rely on a support system primarily consisting of friends. In a research involving 249 students, conducted by Parkinson et al. (2018), it was found that the closer two people were to each other, indicating a stronger bond, the more similar their neural responses would be. Machin writes, “similarities between friends extended way beyond hobbies, ethnicity, age or sex. The signals seen in the brains of friends – both in the unconscious and conscious brain – were more similar than those between people who were more distant in the network. They were also able to predict just how close two people were in the network simply by comparing scans.” There are numerous key areas of our lives where we have relied more on our friends than our given family.
When it comes to romantic love and our brain, Schwartz indicates that “there’s good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature.” This was in response to a study conducted by Helen Fisher in 2005 which showed activity in two brain regions rich with dopamine when people looked at photos of people they loved romantically. One is associated with reward detection, expectation and pleasure; and the other is associated with focused attention, the motivation to pursue and acquire rewards. Primitive areas of our brain are involved in romantic love. Falling in love necessitates the presence of chemicals necessary for the reward circuit. A physical and emotional response is generated that we feel through a racing heart, flushed cheeks, and anxiety. Cortisol level increases, serotonin level depletes. But the high level of dopamine helps in making love a pleasure rich experience, and can be compared with the feelings correlated with the use of drugs or alcohol. Dopamine is considered the feel-good hormone. Schwartz puts it quite aptly. “Same reward center, different way to get there.”
Schwartz says that when one is engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for critically assessing people, including those we are romantically involved with, shuts down. And that’s the neural basis for the phrase ‘love is blind’.
The purpose behind sharing the neurobiological perspective on loving friends and romantic love is to equip those who wish to engage in this introspection, with some tangible ground. It allowed me to explore the aspects of love without overlooking cultural aspects that might be too deep seated to be noticed.
An Asexual Perspective
Quite often, romantic love is accompanied with the expectation of the fulfilment of sexual pleasure, another entity that has been put on a pedestal. KJ Cerankowski, in their research surrounding the misunderstandings about asexuality, found out that we are “capable of obtaining just as much contentment from other areas of life, and complete gratification in life doesn’t necessarily include sexual gratification.” Professor Semir Zeki’s work showed that our brain reacts the same way when we look at beautiful artwork, as it does when we are in love. His research supports Cerankowski’s findings.
Regardless of where our understanding of love comes from, it remains undeniable that love is essential to our existence. Yet we are living in a world which is saturated with reminders restricting myriad ways of existing. Be it our culture that puts forth marriage as a pathway to romantic and maternal love, or the media that unfailingly reminds us that dating is, in fact, essential to having a “life”. It is overlooked that some people, perhaps, do not plan on finding a lover or becoming a parent. For some, platonic relationships have provided a sense of fulfilment that no other conventionally superior relationship could. If love can be a source of many things, including the pleasure it provides us, it becomes inevitable to consider the broader implications of what it means for us, which would require a disassembly of the hierarchy of love.