Does Our Brain Know Love Before We Do?


“Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame.” ~Henry David Thoreau

The often-used phrase “He lights up when she comes into the room,” is an accurate statement. Love at first sight would more appropriately be labeled “limbic resonance at first contact with the ocular portals.” But the poets, I am certain, would object. What we do know is that when people are attracted to each other there are mutual neural patterns activated in the limbic system — literally, our brains light up. Something happens in the limbic system that lets us know we are in the presence of a potential love.

To be loved means being free to be yourself in the presence of another person. It is the mutuality of this experience that we each crave. Somehow we know when it is near, and ache when it is lost. We have all had it: the look, the feeling, and the sense of awe in the presence of the person we are attracted to. But is it more than just the infusion of the catecholamine neurotransmitter, dopamine, or the mammalian hormone oxytocin? Yes.

You most likely know that the limbic system is the seat of emotions and it regulates the type, degree and intensity of our feelings. But what you may not know is your limbic system may be trying to detect whom you will love, and who will love you back. Limbic resonance is a term used to describe the feeling of attraction to another.

In brief, limbic resonance might be best expressed by saying: We are drawn to what is familiar rather than unfamiliar –and our brains are able to detect who is emotionally familiar.

Consider the origin of the word Familiar. It originally meant ‘of the family’ from old French familier, and from Latin familiāris. In other words we learn how to love, and who to love, from our family. Good bad or indifferent the family relationships, with parents and siblings, teach us what love is, and what to look for when we go out into the world. In fact, our unconscious acts like a GPS unit to seek a “familiar” love that is similar in some way to what we’ve had in our family.

It seems that part of our brain remembers and seeks out, usually unconsciously, someone who will emotionally resonate to us. But evolution demands we seek a better partner than the GPS unit set by our family. Once we leave home our brains and hearts set off in search of something the same, only better. (A fascinating bit of new research suggests that we may always be looking for someone better.)

So the next time you are attracted to someone know that there is a lot more going into the attraction than the physical. Our brain, it seems, are hardwired to help us find a similar feeling to what helped us survive in the first place.

But what if we are attracted to, you know, the wrong types? Can we change our brain? The short answer is yes. When we have found the wrong one we can change, and if we’ve found the right one we can tweak. To learn more about how this works you can check out these articles.

This article was originally published at PsychCentral. Reprinted with permission from the author.