What If Everything You Believed About Love Was Wrong?

According to research, love is a more expansive experience than you think.

Posted Dec 30, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Hassan Ouajbir/Pexels
Source: Hassan Ouajbir/Pexels

One of my favorite songs from the 80’s is Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” As an adolescent at the time the song debuted, I too wanted to know what love was. Now, many years later, I’d like to think I’ve figured it out. But, according to social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, perhaps I haven’t. In fact, Fredrickson thinks most of us hold mistaken, or at least overly narrow, views of what love is.

In her book, Love 2.0, Fredrickson dispels numerous commonly-held ideas about love. Love isn’t passion, she writes. It isn’t commitment. It isn’t family connection. It isn’t even romance. These experiences can accompany love, but they aren’t exactly “love” itself. Instead, she argues that love, at its true core, is a moment-to-moment emotional experience of warmth and mutual caring.

Real love is something Fredrickson calls “shared positivity.” This occurs anytime two people connect over a shared positive emotion. Such a moment can and frequently does occur between romantic partners, family members, and close friends. But it can also occur between strangers. That warm interaction you had with the gas station attendant when you found out that, like you, he is obsessed with cats, may have been such a moment of love.

When we experience a moment like that, our brains and behaviors “sync up,” something Fredrickson refers to as “positivity resonance.” People may mirror each other’s postures, nod along with one another, make eye contact, or smile. 

This synchrony can also be reflected in the brain. In one study, researchers observed how brains synchronize when someone tells an engaging story. They recorded a person telling an entertaining, real-life story while their brain was being scanned using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a technique researchers can use to get a “live” picture of the brain. They later played this story for other participants whose brains also were being monitored using fNIRS equipment. They found that the activity in the listeners’ brains was correlated with the story-teller’s brain activity. This “brain coupling” occurred in a variety of brain areas involved in language comprehension as well as in discerning social information like the beliefs, desires, and goals of others.

Two other biological mechanisms may also play a role in love, as Fredrickson defines it. First, the hormone oxytocin is often released into the body during positive social interactions, and its presence appears to result in increased trust, something that could contribute to positivity resonance. Researchers have investigated how oxytocin affects trust by asking people to inhale it as a nasal spray. After they’ve been administered the oxytocin, they’re asked to engage in a game in which greater points can be obtained only if they trust another player. Studies have found a statistically significant advantage in such games for those who have been administered the oxytocin relative to those who haven’t.

Finally, the vagus nerve may play a role in love. This long nerve extends from the brain to many parts of the body, including the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The functioning of the vagus nerve—referred to as vagal tone—can be measured in various ways, including through a certain kind of coordination between one’s breathing and heart rate. Vagal tone is thought to play a role in emotion regulation. And people who are better able to regulate their emotions tend to act more kindly and altruistically toward others. Thus, they may be more prone to the shared positivity Fredrickson refers to.

A reasonable critique of Fredrickson’s view is that she defines love differently than what most of us mean when we say “I love you.” It may seem strange to think of love as a fleeting experience or to consider that we can share that experience with a stranger. But at a time when people seem to feel more and more alienated from one another, it’s encouraging to realize that love can be fostered not just between romantic partners, family members, or friends, but with anyone with whom we share a positive moment.