Berscheid (2010) argues that love is difficult to define because of all the instances of love that exist: romantic love, fraternal love, friendship, which vary in much more than a degree of liking. Love is easy to recognize, nevertheless, so a functional definition should part of what different paradigms of love have in common rather than what makes them different. The comic series Love is… showing a loving couple in everyday circumstances captures the essence of love—mostly romantic and companionate instances, but also familial love and friendship: “Love is… someone who makes you laugh and worry less… a safe pair of hands… what gets you through a bad day… picking out the seeds from her watermelon…” (Casali, 2018). Love implies joy, attachment, bonds of affiliation, and the willingness to put up with unrewarding circumstances in the expectancy that one’s actions will strengthen a social relationship. This expectancy is for the most part unconscious. A lover receives no immediate reward for her actions than a pleasant feeling of satisfaction, the sensation of happiness when we see, touch, or think of a loved one. Perhaps, then, the somatic sensations into which love translates are what defines it: “Love is that tug at your heartstrings” (Casali, 2018). Whatever the form in which love manifests, what all cases of love seem to share is a pleasant feeling, butterflies flying inside one’s stomach, an electric shock running down our spine, a cocktail of chemicals released within our brains and through the bloodstream in our bodies that impels us to behave in a manner that will intensify that pleasant feeling, namely by approaching the other. As a pleasant feeling, love is nature’s way to reinforce behavior conducive to the establishment and strengthening of long-term relationships (Keltner, Oatley, & Jenkins, 2014). Sharing resources, protecting the weak, and cooperating to achieve a common goal are all behaviors that will increase our chances of survival in the long run but in the short run signify a sacrifice of valuable resources. Love is a reward that we cash immediately and becomes addictive so that the expense seems worthy.

Comparing love to a drug may not be therefore an exaggeration. Drugs can alter the function of neuronal cells by serving as agonists to neurotransmitters (Carlson, 2013) and love does essentially the same, it gets us high with happiness relying upon the same neuronal processes that result in addiction. In a study that compared the effects of drug addiction to the effects of creating affective bonds, Burkett and Young (2012) go as far as to propose that “social attachment may be understood as a behavioral addiction, whereby the subject becomes addicted to another individual and the cues that predict social reward” (p. 1).

Klein (2015) argues that memories are experiences which originate in past experiences stored as knowledge recreated in autonoetic awareness and thus evoke the feeling of reliving one’s past. Since by the time sensory information reaches consciousness the events from which this information originated are already in the past, feelings of love become an experience of reliving of the past too. The difference relies upon the specificity of behavior love inspires, and the autonoetic awareness. Under Klein’s (2015) definition, memories of love situate us in the past or a different location but immediate experiences of love do not change our time or location, neither do they call for thought examination for possibilities of action, as autonoetic awareness does, but call for immediate action mostly from responses born unconsciously. Thus, love feelings do not qualify for Klein’s (2015) definition of memory unless elicited by the recall of events in the distant past but then become a consequence rather than a memory.

It is more straightforward, however, to think of love as a feeling with a specific meaning attached to it, attraction to the other, and of memories as stored knowledge that can be recalled and reinterpreted in awareness or used unconsciously to follow a procedure (Baars & Gage, 2010; Eynsenck & Keane, 2010; Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 2013; Kolb & Whishaw, 2015; Matlin & Farmer, 2016) and thus have the meaning of whatever concept they are associated with. Both feelings and memories become information that helps us make judgments and take decisions, but the meaning of feelings must be interpreted from somatic sensations that originate in the interpretation of stimuli based on its relevance to our current or ultimate goals, survival (Brosch, Pourtois, & Sander, 2010), while memories originate in knowledge already stored in our minds whose semantic meaning remains stable (although memories can also fade with time and their essence can change upon reinterpretation; Keltner et al., 2014) yet their emotional significance relies on their interpretation. For instance, a woman with Capgras syndrome may take her husband for an impostor and reject him despite being able to match his physical appearance to that stored in her long-term memory because the emotional responses he used to inspire on her, also stored in the woman’s long-term memory, no longer match the emotional responses he inspires now on her. The feelings that love precipitate, in this sense, work as information that must be matched with that stored in memory to identify the loved object (Gazzaniga et al., 2013).

In the absence of the pleasant feeling love provides, the urge to establish a bond with the other disappears because such bonds can be costly. Berscheid (2010) mentions a study that asked men and women whether they would marry a person that had all the qualities they looked for in a partner if they did not love that person. At least 80 percent of the respondents said no. What this suggests is that love is hedonistic despite its seemingly altruistic function. What we crave is not so much the long-term benefits of the social bonds love helps establish but the feelings that love triggers.

The “tug at your heartstrings” love provokes is the way nature compensates us in the present for establishing bonds that will benefit us in the future, the way that our genes trick us into raising our children, helping a friend in need, and coupling for a period that extends beyond mating to increase our chances of survival and thus of spreading our genetic information (Keltner et al., 2014). Loving our friends and family to the point of incurring risks is thus similar to our urge to consume fats and sugars. Both result in pleasant sensations now and obey emotional impulses which are but survival mechanisms established through the course of evolution (Ledoux, 1996). Whether loving a thug or eating cake results in the best course of action is beyond the mechanisms that control emotional appraisal as the original interpretation of the meaning of the stimuli—the handsomeness of the thug and the triple layered chocolate cake promising physical pleasures. Optimal decision making demands the integration of memory and affect in higher cognition to judge the likelihood of an outcome, discount risks and reason plausible inferences (Blanchette & Richards, 2010).

Some will argue that love also hurts, that “love wounds and marks any heart not tough or strong enough to take a lot of pain” (O’Connor, 2003) which would give the emotion causing the feeling a negative valence. Those painful instances refer, however, to the downs of an affect-based relationship not to feelings of love in specific. Feelings of sadness, hate, fear, and pain are separate from actual feelings of love because they arise from separate appraisals of different situations all of which may involve the same object of affect and relate to the same goals—reproduction, and survival—but engage different emotional responses deemed more appropriate by evolution to the specific circumstances so as to increase the chances of survival and wellbeing (Brosch et al., 2010). As Moors (2010) summarizes it, “emotions differ when the content of their judgements differs” (p. 26). In other words, if the ultimate goal is gene survival, love is not always the answer. The anger that Othello felt resulted from judging Desdemona unworthy of his love, a judgment that responded to survival mechanisms that signaled that his efforts establishing a long-term relationship with her had been in vain, for she may have been carrying the offspring of another man. Killing her equated to infanticide, an exceedingly cruel act that is nevertheless common in nature and which some propose is the origin of monogamy in primates: couples in monogamous relationships can protect their offspring from male infanticides (Opie, Atkinson, Dunbar, & Shultz, 2013). Othello’s sadness after realizing his error comes from the realization that the source of his feelings of love was forever lost. A sad state not only communicates to others of our need for comfort but as an aversive state serves as a punishing reinforcer creating avoidance to similar situations in the future (Levine & Edelstein, 2010). Othello’s tragedy teaches us about the risks of poor emotion regulation. The point is, positive affect should not be measured under the same scale as negative affect because they are not opposites within the same spectrum but different emotions that may manifest simultaneously but ultimately are the result of separate mechanisms (Berscheid, 2010). Compassion alleviates sadness and contentment alleviates apprehension, but they are only opposites in the way they mark our distance to a goal, not as expressions of the same emotion.

As a feeling, love is an emotion, but only in the colloquial sense that makes both synonyms. In the theoretical sense, and as the cognitive interpretation of somatic responses, feelings are the last component of an emotional episode by most approaches (Moors, 2010). Love is, therefore, the subjective interpretation of somatic responses to a significant stimulus. Using a discrete emotion approach like that of Plutchik’s (see Ledoux, 1996), Ekman or Izard (see Moors, 2010) demands love to be matched to a specific emotion, leading us to as many different definitions of love as one can produce of emotions. Using a theoretical approach that defines emotions in terms of survival mechanisms without attempting to match it to a discrete emotion or a combination of emotions, such as that which Ledoux (1996) proposes, allows defining love as the interpretation of feelings of positive affect without having to match it to a basic emotion, which would require labeling consensus.

However, definitions of different kinds of love based on their nature cannot be measured in terms of arousal and approach/avoidance behaviors, because these will vary according to the circumstances as well as the kind of association desired. Genes programmed us with emotions to prolong theirs rather than our existence (Keltner et al., 2014). Thus the love for our immediate family will tend to be more intense than the love we may feel for our friends or neighbors. However, love not always manifests with the same intensity. Seeing an old friend after a long separation may result in larger approach responses and increase arousal higher than seeing our romantic partner that the same evening. That does not necessarily mean that one loves that friend more than one loves his partner, just that, as a stimulus within the specific context at that specific moment in time, the long-gone-friend has a greater emotional significance and therefore provokes a greater emotional response than seeing the partner we have been living with for over a decade. 

For a more objective measurement of love, one would need to measure love for different subjects under similar circumstances, and perhaps use an indirect measure such as the fear of loss as an operational variable. Preferring to lose a friend over a child would not define the nature of a love relationship, however, but merely its intensity. To differentiate between different kinds of love, one should pay attention to their specific function. Attachment to one’s parents provide security; attachment to a group provides security and cooperation; attachment to a romantic partner provides companionship, cooperation, and increases our chances of reproduction; attachment to a child increases the chances of continuing our lineage. Romantic love does not always represent a stronger form of attraction than friendship but a bond created with a different purpose, that of satisfying reproductive urges. Companionate love, therefore, does not have to represent a lower kind of affect than romantic love but a social bond in which reproduction no longer is the primary objective.

Additionally, defining love in terms of feelings that promote approach does not take into account that those feelings are not always present. One does not stop loving when mad or sad or when the object of our affection is absent, and therefore the emotional responses it triggers are also absent. Moreover, using the word “loving” implies an action. A definition of love that matches what we commonly understand as love should then include instances in which the word is used as a verb, implying attraction toward a stimulus evaluated as inherently rewarding, and when the word reflects an attitude that does not cease to exist when the object that it evaluates is out of our attention. Love is, therefore, also a set of beliefs that predispose us to evaluate an association with the other as beneficial to our wellbeing because the feelings that this association inspires are pleasant to the point of causing dependency, as Burkett and Young (2012) propose. The addictive factor is what distinguishes love from an ordinary social transaction or mere liking. We like acquaintances but love our closest friends because losing a dear friend is more painful than losing a mere acquaintance. The addictive factor of love is also a mechanism through which our genes ensure that costly social associations such as parenthood and monogamy are long-lasting.

As a survival mechanism, the capacity to love and be loved is an innate mechanism for species with a developed limbic system which benefit from close associations (Keltner et al., 2014). Being one among many survival mechanisms, developing bonds of affect becomes an optimal response only under favorable circumstances, however. That is, only when love is reciprocated and co-dependency brings up the expected benefits to an individuals wellbeing, loving the other becomes the preferred course of action. Love, as a survival strategy, must be then, if not learned, fomented, so that our capacity to love does not diminish due to structural changes in the brain, as the “use it or lose it” motto suggests (Gazzaniga et al. 2013)

Bowlby proposed that the mechanism through which infants become attached to their caregivers be NIL similar to that of imprinting observed in birds (Keltner et al., 2014). Because infants are unable to provide for themselves, developing a preference for one’s main caregiver and, from the caregiver’s side, finding pleasure in satisfying an infant’s emotional and biological needs, increases the chances of genetic survival (Easterbrooks, Bartlett, Beeghly, & Thompson, 2012).

Per attachment theory, a child will create a mental schema of the rules that direct her association with her main caregiver so that she can predict how that caregiver will respond to her needs. This mental schema not only will guide the child’s behavior toward her caregiver but serve as a basis to build future relationships as her world expands beyond the familial boundaries. Thus, security of attachment may be the strongest predictor of proper socio-emotional and cognitive development, and therefore of an individual’s ability to understand her emotions and develop empathy, as well as of her capacity to establish positive relationships in the future (Easterbrooks et al., 2012; Leblanc, Dégeilh, Daneault, Beauchamp, & Bernier, 2017).

A child will develop a secure attachment when she feels safe in the hands of their caregivers and seeks their protection under conditions of stress. A child with insecure attachment will either doubt of the protection her caregivers provide, and thus develop ambivalent attachment, which manifest in behaviors such as excessive crying that exaggerate her distress so that she ensures her caregivers attention, or, in the case of avoidant attachment, avoid her caregivers altogether since their company does not provide the required soothing (Keltner et al., 2014; Sherman, Rice, & Cassidy, 2015). 

Attachment can be affected by genetic and epigenetic factors, which determine temperament, the set of personality traits inherent to a person (Keltner et al., 2014), but mostly by experience, which affects the creation of neuronal connections and therefore judgment. The classic example of a genetic predisposition that will affect attachment are individuals with a short allele of the serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region, 5-HTTLPR, who are more reactive to negative stimuli and thus more susceptible to be affected by stress (Keltner et al., 2014). Children with a short version of the allele are more irritable and consequently more difficult to sooth and may have a higher predisposition to develop insecure attachment for their caregivers. Prenatal or early childhood exposure to high levels of cortisol due to continuous stress is an example of how epigenetic factors can affect attachment. Children with high levels of cortisol do not thrive normally because excessive cortisol suppresses gene expression required for normal regulation of stress (Keltner et al., 2014). After being stimulated by the amygdala upon the presence of a threatening stimulus, the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing-hormone, which eventually promotes the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands (Hostinar & Gunnar, 2012). In children exposed to abnormal levels of stress, this process continues longer than necessary because the receptors to detect cortisol in the brain and stop the production corticotrophin-releasing-hormone are faulty (Keltner et al., 2014). Thus, children exposed to abnormal levels of stress are also more reactive to negative stimuli, and present lower weight, cognitive impairments, and because their immune system is depressed they may be more vulnerable to illnesses, making them less able to regulate their emotions and thus more difficult to sooth too (Easterbrooks et al., 2012).

As said, however, experience can have a more significant effect on how a child develops attachment for her caregivers by shaping how neuronal connections establish in the brain (Hostinar & Gunnar, 2012; Leblanc et al., 2017; Stiles & Jernigan, 2010). Although neurogenesis stops shortly after birth, a child’s brain is not fully developed. The brain not only continues growing in size throughout early adulthood with the addition of glial cells, which does not stop till death, but it continues creating new synaptic connections, strengthening existent ones via myelination, and pruning redundant connections (Stiles & Jernigan, 2010). Thus, parents that are responsive to their child’s discomfort and responsive to her emotional expressions, which are the way in which the child communicates, may be able to override the deleterious effects of bad temperament in the ability to develop secure attachment (Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000). In this sense, loving parents promote adequate emotional regulation by causing the strengthening of synaptic connections that favor social bonding in the child’s brain. However, a child’s ill temperament can also have an aversive effect on the caregivers’ behavior, increasing her level of stress, affecting her mood and making her less responsive than to a child with a mild temperament, which may derive on the child developing an insecure form of attachment.

The ability to better regulate one’s emotions that come with developing secure attachment translate directly in behavior. Children with insecure attachment have lower self-esteem and may respond more aggressively or anxiously than secure children. Moreover, the lack of positive experiences leads to poor cognitive development. For instance, Rutter and O’Connor (2004) made a longitudinal study that followed Romanian children adopted by British families and compared their development with British children also adopted. They found a negative relationship between the time that the Romanian children spent in an orphanage and their capacity to develop secure attachment for their adopted parents, as well as with head circumference (as a proxy for brain growth), and their cognitive index at a later age, even when the Romanian orphans were able to catch-up in weight with their British counterparts. Rutter and O’Conner (2004) argue that the cognitive and behavioral deficits are not only long-lasting effects of malnutrition but of being deprived of positive experiences. Keltner et al. (2014) mention another study that followed up on some of those Romanian orphans at 15-years-old and found symptoms of “quasi-autism, disinhibited or disorganized attachment, cognitive impairment, and inattention-overactivity” (p. 313) in those that presented insecure attachment as children.

The most significant impact of developing insecure attachment is, however, on an individual’s ability to regulate his emotions and establish adequate social relationships (Hostinar and Gunnar, 2012). While a maltreated child will still develop some attachment for his parents, because attachment responds to emotional urges arising from an infants vulnerability, he will develop mental schemas of himself and others that do not favor establishing affective bonds with others. Keltner et al. (2014) mention research that suggests that “children reared in risky environments develop insecure attachment relationships, opportunistic ways of interacting with others, and rapid sexual development as ways of succeeding in the risky contexts that they will likely encounter (p. 298). For insecurely attached individuals, love becomes the wrong adaptive response to life challenges. When associating with the other does not translate in feelings of pleasantness, social bonds become either meaningless or stressful, leading to an increased risk for psychopathology (Cummings, Braungart-Rieker, & Du Rocher Schudlich, 2012).

Researchers agree that the best predictor of the competence and resilience necessaries to cope with adversity is having a caring figure in childhood that provides positive affect and structure and thus a sense of security (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Keltner et al., 2014). Parental attachment, of course, is not the only factor that will determine socio-emotional regulation. Siblings, peers, and the environment play a role too on how a person creates a model of the self and a theory of mind of how others behave, yet the quality of parental attachment plays a primordial role in affective development because experience has a stronger effect on how the brain wires itself during early rather than later stages of development, and parental care determines the valence of an individual’s first experiences . Unlike a computer’s programming, which can be easily altered by typing a few lines of code, the brain’s programming cannot be changed by merely asking the individual to change her behavior no matter how strong our arguments for doing so. Learning new patterns of behavior requires actual physical changes in the brain, the creation of new synaptic connections or the strengthening of weak ones which demands repetition and reinforcement. Therapy can improve a person’s capability for self-regulation of emotions (Keltner et al., 2014). However, just like an adult cannot learn a new language with the same ease that a child can because the capacity to distinguish language phonemes diminishes with the pruning of redundant connections that occurs in infancy (Kolb & Whishaw, 2015), an adult that grew up unloved may never be able to develop the capacity to care for others and acquire the same level of affective fluency than a person that grew up surrounded by love because the required neuronal wiring may have been pruned out as well. While the brain is plastic, it is only so to a certain point.

References:

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