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What Is Love?

Love is an emotion consisting of patterns of neural firing.

The question “What is love?” is one of the most frequent Web searches. But we learn little from dictionary definitions of love as an intense and powerful feeling of attachment and devotion. More useful is a new kind of conceptual analysis I call “3-analysis”, because it looks for 3 kinds of information concerning standard examples, typical features, and explanations. This way of analyzing concepts is based on a new theory of concepts as neural representations that encompass examples, features and explanations. In an earlier blog post, I gave a 3-analysis of the concept of intelligence.

3-analysis is not meant to capture ordinary people’s concept of love, but rather one based on growing scientific understanding of love and other emotions. The exemplars (standard examples) for love include spouses, parents/children, Romeo & Juliet, Bogart & Bacall, etc. The typical features of a loving relationship include a lover, a loved one, intense feeling about another, caring behavior, and chemical changes in the lover. The concept of love plays a useful role in explaining people’s behavior with each other, and can be explained by noting people’s biological needs, cultural expectations, and underlying chemistry such as neurotransmitters and hormones.

Like other emotions, the process of love requires emergence from mechanisms operating at social, mental, neural, and molecular levels. At the social level, love results from many kinds of interactions, both verbal and nonverbal: talking, touching, flirting, gazing, and so on. At the mental level, an individual state of love results from binding various mental representations, including the self, the person that the self loves, the cognitive appraisal of the loved one and situation, and physiological changes that occur from interacting with or thinking about the loved one. The appraisal requires conscious or unconscious judgments about the extent to which the other person satisfies the psychological, social, and physical goals of the individual in love. Physiological changes associated with being in love include increased heart rate, increased physical activity, and sometimes nervous feeling in the stomach.

Semantic pointers show how binding into mental representations can take place through the activities of large populations of spiking neurons. Hence the feeling of being in love at any particular moment can be identified with patterns of neural firing that result from binding by convolution of other patterns of neural firing carrying out representations of self, other, and the integration of appraisal and physiology. Neural firing results from neuron-neuron interactions that depend on molecular mechanisms using neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, as well as on hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, testosterone, and estrogen. Therefore, falling in love is not just chemistry, feeling, or recognizing a soul-mate, but the emergent result of the interaction of social, mental, neural, and molecular mechanisms.

Like other mental states, love is both an occurrence and a disposition. The occurrence of love as an active feeling is the complex pattern of neural firing just described. But love is also a disposition to have this feeling at various times, such as when you are asleep or concerned with other matters. You do not have to be thinking about someone to be in love with that person.

A mental disposition is a property of mechanisms where the parts can operate in different ways depending on environmental inputs. At the neural level, the disposition to generate particular kinds of firing patterns results from synaptic connections formed by previous experience through various kinds of learning. Other mechanisms that dispose people toward occurring feelings of love are molecular, ranging from dopamine circuitry to hormonal changes. Also dispositional are stored beliefs, for example that the other person is highly suitable as a mate. Social changes can also dispose people to have more active occurrences of love, such as living with each other so that they spend more time together. All these mechanisms dispose a person to have the occurrence of love when prompted by the environment.

Hence viewing love as a semantic pointer can explain both its cognitive and physiological aspects, and both its occurring and dispositional aspects. Yet another advantage of semantic pointer theories of love, trust, and commitment is that they can explain the conscious experiences that go with these mental states, thanks to the theory of consciousness as semantic pointer competition. You can be unconsciously in love with someone when you have the dispositions described in the last paragraph, but you became aware of love when the semantic pointer representing your attitude toward another outcompetes other semantic pointers currently active in your brain.