The science of love. What is love? Baby don’t abstract me.

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What does a coin, a pencil, and a giraffe have in common? Humor me with this, we’ll get to the psychology of love soon enough. 

They are tangible. They are certainly real in an objective world and people can agree upon what they are to a very large extent.

What about Love? Is it an idea? Is it an experience. Is it AN emotion? Is it a bracket term for 148,450 things that people experience? Is it a word that categorizes anything and absolutely anything that can be considered intangible yet very much real?

We probably will never know for sure. 

What is love? Defining Love with science

The scientific explanation for love is quite complex.

The problem is not subjectivity. Calling it subjective diminishes it by a lot. It’s not coffee that you find tasty and the experience changes with context. We can’t even identify preset criteria that suggest that one can experience love which others can confirm. Perhaps a large component of love is subjective, meaning that it contains plenty of variables that determine the ‘content’ of love and therefore, an interpretation of the experience that it entails. Perhaps, that too is a poor description.

Variables exist in the world. Humans can identify them. We can measure rainfall, wind-speed, mountain heights, populations, eye colour, etc. We can measure them. No matter how many variables there are, we can potentially measure them and watch them change in some dynamic context.

What is abstraction?

The philosophy 101 explanation:

Before we get into the psychology of love, we should look at concept formation. A table has a set of properties that make it a table. The table has a table-ness, that you can sense and perceive in other tables and put them in the category of tables. The same goes with a chair. Is abstraction a way to conceptualize? Sure. But, that’s only half the picture.

Kiki-Bouba experiment:

(my research domain[1])

I’ll give you two names. Choose which name suits which shape.

The kiki bouba experiment psychology


1. Kiki

2. Bouba

What do you think?




……. (spoilers ahead)







95% of the human population thinks the left image is a ‘Kiki’ and the right image is a ‘Bouba’.

Why? We have a bunch of theories that do a pretty good job of explaining this phenomenon. At the heart of each, there is something called as cross-sensory perception and abstraction.

It turns out that the best explanation for this is that we humans, with our brains, extract the essence of information from objects and have a neural representation that associates itself with the object at an abstract-biological level.

When 2 objects are examples, their essence is taken as the least common denominator and or some vague common feature that is only loosely tied to the object itself (tableness). This is Abstraction. Thus, we can think that there is some association between kiki and that starry jagged shape.

This essence may very well be a neural firing pattern that is shared in common with the representation of the tangible features of these objects or examples. As the shared neural pattern has no real-world counterpart, it can be considered as the abstraction of those examples. These abstractions are representing something intangible.

Now let me show you what science thinks love is: A higher abstraction of lust with an Emotion-complex. Let me elucidate.

Warning: This article is a conjecture based on the psychology and neuroscience of love. This is not an established theory of love.

The Psychology of Love – emotions and lust

An emotion complex: A mental web of all things connected that have disproportionately strong with each other that are unique to people, have emotional value, have ideas, thoughts, expectations, experiences, true and untrue memories. These complexes can be huge that spawn an entire childhood or can be largely centered around your graduation. Its a web, a cluster that only you can experience through introspection. This web is not really abstract, it represents actual things you can sense and perceive – books, coffee dates, movies, fights, plans, cheap thrills, touch, etc.

Lust: A wild attractive force to indulge in sexual contact with someone. This may be largely grounded in the motivation to mate. We have brain regions that have developed in association with gene propagation through mating- Lust centres. These centres are largely in the older and deeper regions of the brain indicating that they have been there since before we became walking, talking, meme-sharing creatures. This fact is key. Remember, the lust regions belong to the ancient brain.

A Brain imaging study (scientific explanation of love):

When brains of a variety of people in love were imaged, there was a startling discovery. All those lust regions lit up. Surely love is not just plain animistic lust. There is gotta be more. Of course, there is. The research found that above these ‘lust regions’ there exist newer, modern brain regions that light up when someone is in love but not when they are purely lusting. There is a good reason to believe that these regions indicate abstraction of something and account for the experience of love.

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These are the regions and their functions (pardon the slight academic incline, it was a paper I worked on):

Ventral tegmental area: A dopamine-rich region that underlies both love and lust. It contributes to the motivation, goal pursuit, euphoria and habit formation (Cacioppo, 2012).

Insula: Plays a role in self-awareness, the posterior part perceives body states and visceral sensations (Lust) and the anterior part forms the abstract ideas about these body states (Love) (Cacioppo, 2012).

Inferior parietal Lobule: Associated with social-cognitive functions involving abstract representation of the self, body image and self-esteem (Cacioppo, 2012).

Temporoparietal junction: Integrates bodily sensations and extracts a common, abstract mental representation from them. It also assists in the generation of empathy (Cacioppo, 2012).

Occipitotemporal cortex: Linked with vision, associative memory and conceptual knowledge and episodic retrieval. Other brain regions tell this system what to interpret as sexually desirable and lovable and how to feel (Cacioppo, 2012).

Prefrontal cortex: Generally associated with complex cognition, personality, decision making and social behaviour (Cacioppo, 2012).

Striatum: As lust progresses to love, activity cascades from the bottom to the top with the bottom active in sexual incentive cues and the top involved in tracking stimuli and activating stereotyped behaviour (Cacioppo, 2012).

So what do we have here?

First, let us assume that love often contains social content between 2 parties. The lover and the lovee. Shared experiences certainly facilitate love between people and love can motivate shared experiences. It is a 2-way street.

Second, let us isolate the idea of an Emotion Complex.

Third, we will highlight Abstraction from a cognitive psychology (Kiki-Bouba experiment) perspective and neurobiological perspective.

Putting these together, we get:

Love = Abstraction of Lust × emotion complex × shared experience 

In summary, it is all those real things you have experienced with an emotional value that contribute to YOU. An emotion complex is what makes a large part of you. As it helps you define, accommodate, and assimilate the world, it potentially influences your expectation, interest, intensity, etc. involved in love.

I suppose this defines love quite well! Do you agree with this understanding of love? Do leave your comments sharing your ideas!

Source: Cacioppo, S., Cacioppo, J. (2012). The common neural bases of Sexual Desire and Love: A multilevel Kernel Density fMRI Analysis. Journal of Sexual Medicine 9,1048-1054.[2]

P.S. What is love? Baby don’t hurt me (sings off tune)[3]

P.P.S. I won’t be saying ‘Lovee’ that often. 

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4 thoughts on “The science of love. What is love? Baby don’t abstract me.”

  1. Yeah Aditya. You can agree with me that it is just a four later word with thousands of meanings. I can give you 20 meanings in less than 5 minutes. The word up till now has no real meaning until someone gives it that meaning

    • That is true, and I agree, there is no inherent meaning. One ends up giving it meaning. That is why I propose that the emotion complex and abstraction processes enable this meaning-giving!



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