Love: is it in our heart or in our head?

Evelina Petitto

Humans are social animals. In fact, our lives depend on other human beings, and from the early stages of our existence we can’t live without someone taking care of us: when we are children, our survival depends on the effort another human being puts in feeding, cleaning and relating to us. Our first experiences of the world are strictly connected to our carer, and the ways we learn how to interpret other’s signals of affection and behave in relationships are closely dependent on the first experiences we have.



To have a normal psychological and social development, infants need to establish a relationship with at least one person. This is what in evolutionary psychology is called attachment, and its characteristics depend on how the parents (or the caregivers) respond to the behaviours and emotions of the child. Depending on the nature of these early responses, the child will develop a particular type of attachment, which later in life will shape his/her relationships in the terms of expectations and emotions.

The early types of attachments are four, and can be described as follow:

  • Secure: this is the ideal type of attachment, and is established when the caregiver responds to the child’s interaction in a consistent and sensitive manner. In this way, the child learns that the others can be trusted, and they use the caregiver as a secure base to explore and experience the world with a reasonable degree of autonomy.
  • Avoidant: if the carer is emotionally unavailable and insensitive or unaware of the needs of the child, the child will learn not to be dependent on someone else for his needs, and become fast a “little adult” who take care of himself.
  • Ambivalent/anxious: if the carer is not consistent in his responses to the child, alternating moments of appropriate responses and moments of intrusive or insensitive behaviours, the child won’t know what to expect in response to his needs. He will be suspicious and distrustful of the carers, but at the same time he will try to constantly get their attention crying and acting clingy.
  • Disorganised: this is the type of attachment developed by children with abusive carers. These children are caught in a terrible dilemma: they need the carer for their survival, but at the same time they are terrified by them, being the carers the source of their emotional and sometimes physical pain. These children usually resolve the impasse by dissociating from their selves, and as a result the disturbing experiences are removed from their conscious thoughts.

According to the type of attachment developed during the first year of our lives, we grow up with certain relationship assumptions regarding what we can and what we can’t expect from others. In adulthood, children who had a secure attachment to their carers will have a secure personality: they have a positive and strong sense of self, and desire close connections with others. In their relationships, they can find the right balance between independence and closeness.

Children who had an avoidant attachment will most likely grow up having a dismissive personality: they consider relationships and emotions as being unimportant, and tend to avoid stressful situations and conflicts by distracting themselves with superficial activities.

Children who had an ambivalent/anxious type of attachment will have a preoccupied personality: they are self-critical and insecure, and ask seek approval and reassurance from others. In relationships, the fear of being rejected makes them distrustful and worried, and they usually end up being overly dependent from their partners.

Finally, children who develop a disorganised attachment will likely have a fearful/avoidant personality: they desire relationships and are comfortable in them until they develop emotional closeness. At this point the feelings they repressed as children come to the surface, and they start experiencing them in the present without the awareness that they belong to the past. Instead of living in the present, they constantly re-live the old trauma.

Of course there is space for change, and people who developed an insecure type of attachment during childhood can grow into secure adults if faced with corrective secure experiences.


Oftloveen, when we fall in love with someone, we say that there is a certain chemistry between us and the object of our love. Well, this isn’t completely wrong. In fact, our brain creates this feeling producing a variety of chemicals that characterise the different stages of romantic love.

Scientists have proposed that romantic love consists of 3 distinct phases, each of them different according to the chemical that our brain produces:

  1. Lust/romantic feelings

This stage is the first one, and corresponds to the period of time where the partner seems perfect and ideal. This is due to the fact that our brain is full of endorphins, and the two hormones that specifically drive this stage are testosterone and oestrogen (for both males and females).

  1. Physical attraction

This is the phase where you are “love sick”: you think about your partner all day long, lose appetite and need less sleep. It is controlled by three neurotransmitters: adrenaline, that activates stress responses; this is the reason why at the beginning of a relationship when you meet your loved one you heart rate increases, you sweat, and your mouth goes dry.

Dopamine, that stimulates the desire and reward system in our brain; it causes rushes of pleasure, and alters cognition (you day dream about your partner all day long), mood and sleep patterns (you sleep less). In a way, we can say that falling in love is the same thing than being addicted to cocaine!

Serotonin, whose effect in this stage of being in love is much similar to the one observed in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): this explains why people experiencing infatuation cannot think of anyone else. Serotonin also regulates appetite, sleep, memory, and mood, and plays a vital role in physical attraction.

  1. Emotional attachment

This stage includes commitment, partnership, the possibility of procreation, and can recognize both positive and negative traits towards the partner. This is the stage you and your partner will either work towards a healthy/loving relationship or decide to end all together. It is mostly driven by two hormones: oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, is a powerful hormone released by males and females during orgasm, and it strengthens the bond between partners. The theory is the more sex and hugs a couple has, the stronger and deeper the connection between them becomes.

Vasopressin, an important hormone released after sex. Its effects are enhanced by testosterone, and it heightens one’s responsibility, monogamy, also giving them protective, jealous, and loyal feelings towards their partner.

So these are the responses that our brain has when it’s in love. Given all that (especially the involvement of the reward system at an early stage) love looks more like an addiction rather than a simple feeling or emotion. This is also confirmed by fMRI scans that show the activation of those areas responsible for drug addictions in the early stages of physical attraction: a new love produces chemical responses similar to opioids.


More than 20 years ago, the psychologist Arthur Aron could make two strangers fall in love in his lab. The way he did it was very simple: the subjects simply had to answer 36 questions that become more and more intimate one after another, and then staring at each other’s eyes for four minutes without saying a word.

The questions used in the experiment were:

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a perfect day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
  13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  14. Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  16. What do you value most in a friendship?
  17. What is your most treasured memory?
  18. What is your most terrible memory?
  19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  20. What does friendship mean to you?
  21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
  25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
  26. Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
  27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  28. Tell your partner what you like about them: Be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

So why this simple experiment seems to work in making random people falling in love with each other? According to Dr. Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, this experiment “it’s almost like hypnosis in a way. If you think about falling in love, it’s really a willingness to lower barriers that normally inhibit us from getting to know each other.”

Indeed, many couples that took part to this experiment ended up in long term relationships, and one also got married!


There is a validated scale that can help us understand if someone is in love or not: the Passionate Love Scale (PLS). Created in 1986, this scale has been validated for adult and adolescent populations, and can be used for short term loves (7 months or less), as well as for long lasting relationships where the subjects claim they are still in love with their partner (although at this stage usually the scores drop a bit).

The short version of the PLS consists of 14 question, to which a person has to indicate his agreement from 1 (totally disagree) to 9 (totally agree).


Although it may look like this is a quiz taken by a teen magazine, it is actually a validated scale that scientists use to find subjects for their neurophysiological studies on love. You simply add up your results, and you can know how strong your love for your partner is…


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