What is Love? Ask a Neurologist

Brainscans showing anterior and posterior insula

Fair dues to the neuroscientists for coming up with a definition of ‘love’ in the first place.

It’s more than Howard Jones was able to manage. And how very appropriate that in the two brain sections studied, love was the concern of the anterior insula, but lust was governed by the posterior.

Posterior. Uh huh huh huh. *rubs thighs*


A region deep inside the brain controls how quickly people make decisions about love, according to new research at the University of Chicago.

The finding, made in an examination of a 48-year-old man who suffered a stroke, provides the first causal clinical evidence that an area of the brain called the anterior insula “plays an instrumental role in love,” said UChicago neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo, lead author of the study.

Short-term, pleasurable goal

In an earlier paper that analyzed research on the topic, Cacioppo and colleagues defined love as “an intentional state for intense [and long-term] longing for union with another” while lust, or sexual desire, is characterized by an intentional state for a short-term, pleasurable goal.

In this study, the patient made decisions normally about lust but showed slower reaction times when making decisions about love, in contrast to neurologically typical participants matched on age, gender and ethnicity. The findings are presented in a paper, “Selective Decision-Making Deficit in Love Following Damage to the Anterior Insula,” published in the journal Current Trends in Neurology.

“This distinction has been interpreted to mean that desire is a relatively concrete representation of sensory experiences, while love is a more abstract representation of those experiences,” said Cacioppo, a research associate and assistant professor in psychology. The new data suggest that the posterior insula, which affects sensation and motor control, is implicated in feelings of lust or desire, while the anterior insula has a role in the more abstract representations involved in love.

Brainscans showing anterior and posterior insulaThese fMRI scans show brain regions activated by sexual desire (in blue) compared to love (in pink) in healthy patients. The overlap in red illustrates how a patient’s brain lesion affected the area in the brain associated with decision-making in love.

In the earlier paper, “The Common Neural Bases Between Sexual Desire and Love: A Multilevel Kernel Density fMRI Analysis,” Cacioppo and colleagues examined a number of studies of brain scans that looked at differences between love and lust.

The studies showed consistently that the anterior insula was associated with love, and the posterior insula was associated with lust. However, as in all fMRI studies, the findings were correlational.

The love response

“We reasoned that if the anterior insula was the origin of the love response, we would find evidence for that in brain scans of someone whose anterior insula was damaged,” she said.

In the study, researchers examined a 48-year-old heterosexual male in Argentina, who had suffered a stroke that damaged the function of his anterior insula. He was matched with a control group of seven Argentinian heterosexual men of the same age who had healthy anterior insula.

The patient and the control group were shown 40 photographs at random of attractive, young women dressed in appealing, short and long dresses and asked whether these women were objects of sexual desire or love. The patient with the damaged anterior insula showed a much slower response when asked if the women in the photos could be objects of love.

“The current work makes it possible to disentangle love from other biological drives,” the authors wrote. Such studies also could help researchers examine feelings of love by studying neurological activity rather than subjective questionnaires.

Source: University of Chicago
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