Understanding the Psychology of Love

Mass General's Helen Riess tells us what's going on in your love-addled brain.


Brain graphic via Shutterstock

There are countless clichés about falling in love: It makes you act like a fool. It’s all you can think about. Love at first sight will sweep you off your feet. As it turns out, there may be some truth to those platitudes.

With Valentine’s Day looming ever closer, we asked Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, what’s going on in that love-addled brain of yours.

Love isn’t that different from how you feel about your mother.

How’s that for Oedipal? Riess says many of the brain regions that are activated by romantic love overlap with those linked to affiliative love, like that between a mother and child. Romantic love just has added hormones and cognitive responses.

“There are bonding hormones, such as oxytocin, and then areas of the brain that are active when there’s that loving, warm connection with another person,” she says. “If it’s romantic love, then there’s also activation of sexual feelings and other hormonal responses that are responsible for some of the really powerful attraction and physical feelings that people have.”

It may actually make you act like an idiot.

“[When in love], there’s way more activity in the emotional centers of a person’s brain than the prefrontal cortex, which is the more reasoning and executive functions and planning and prioritizing part of our brain,” Riess says. “That may be why people might prioritize things in ways that don’t make complete sense to other people when they’re in love.”

If your newly attached friends are driving you crazy, Riess says a frank conversation about their priorities may set them straight. Just don’t try it with teenagers: “Sometimes it’s harder to get a more reasoned response if you’re talking to someone younger, where some of these cortical tracts are still developing,” she says.

You can blame your brain if you’re picky—or too susceptible to love at first sight.

Sometimes, Riess says, people fall in love quickly if they’ve never been hurt before, and thus don’t know the pain of a love gone sour. Other times, though, it’s just neuroscience. “Some people are just more cautious and deliberate as a way that they approach life,” Riess says. “Everyone’s wired differently.”

There’s a reason for the honeymoon period.

Riess says there are many theories about why love starts out hot and heavy, but eventually cools. The one she finds most compelling, she says, comes from Dr. Harville Hendrix. “His theory is that when we fall in love, we mostly focus on the positive attributes of a person, and we get blurry vision, or even blind, to some of the flaws,” she says. “But over time, the negative aspects of that person start to come into sharper focus.”

But you may be able to get it back.

Riess, an expert in empathy, says focusing on how your partner feels and thinks may help keep love strong. She recommends being mindful of and grateful for the things you like about your partner, and “realizing that their negativity may not have anything to do with you,” when they’re in a bad mood, and may instead stem from their own emotions.

“Empathy has shared neural circuits, which means that when one person is in pain, when the partner sees that, there are certain regions of their brain that actually feel pain,” Riess explains. “We really are wired for understanding and having shared feelings with other people, and through [staying attuned to] these things, we can really enhance our love relationships. We’re kind of wired for mutuality and reciprocity.”