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What is a neurological or scientific explanation for "falling in love"?

This question originally appeared on Quora. Answer by Paul King, Computational Neuroscientist.

The feelings and behaviors associated with falling in love definitely have a neurobiological basis, but much about what love means is constructed by the mind. The feeling of falling in love or being in love are emotional states with neurobiological and biochemical correlates in the brain. Endorphins are brain hormones that activate the same receptors as opium and morphine and are connected with positive feelings such as euphoria.

Oxytocin is another hormone in the brain which is involved in pair-bonding. Some have called oxytocin the "love hormone" because of its association with attachment and feelings of trust, safety, and protectiveness. Oxytocin is also involved in the attachment bond of mother to child and is released during nursing. Oxytocin may be involved in the phenomenon of empathy towards others.

At the same time, there is a lot about love that is culturally determined.

At the biological level, heterosexual pairing primarily serves the purpose generating progeny and caring for them until they are self-sufficient. Humans have the longest time to maturity of any species (12 to 20 years), and so a social and cultural structure of some sort is required to ensure that progeny survive until adulthood.

However the pairing process has also been incorporated into culture in many different ways, and humans are the most socially complex species known. Numerous aspects of love are mostly, if not entirely, culturally determined. These include:

  • What love "means"
  • What types of love are appropriate (age, gender, status)
  • How to find a partner
  • What is important in a partner
  • The relationship of love feelings to partnership
  • The relationship between love feelings and sexual behavior
  • How children should be raised
  • The relationship of children to parents, extended family, community, and society, including patterns of socially sanctioned family structure

Since evolution shapes culture, many of these cultural patterns can be explained as a predictable response to evolutionary pressures. So while the basic feelings and behaviors of love definitely have a neurobiological basis, the "concept of love" and its treatment by society is most definitely a construction of culture.

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