What is love?
As you might expect, there is no one right answer to this question. The term 'love' refers to a cluster of different ideas centring around especially strong feelings of fondness for another person. What exactly constitutes love or different kinds of love – or indeed, whether it exists at all – is largely dependent on cultural notions and individual beliefs.
That is of course, not to say that genuine or even extreme fondness don't exist. Though we might not all always agree on the wording, the love between best friends, between partners, between a parent and a child, or even between a person and humanity, are certainly real feelings for at least some people for at least some of the time.
From a biological standpoint, what people commonly label as 'love' is a group of different responses meditated by various hormones, and especially oxytocin. Oxytocin produces pro-social behaviour,1 including generosity and altruism, empathy, feelings of trust, wanting to protect others, and romantic attachment .2 Oxytocin is particularly associated with the bonding that occurs between a mother and her baby . Along with other hormones, oxytocin produces certain physiological responses typically considered to be components of love, such as an accelerated heart rate and a loss of appetite and sleep . Since these hormones regulate all pro-social behaviour and attachment, there is no clear biological distinction between romantic love and other feelings of fondness.3
At the end of the day, it's best to accept that you can't always understand the way another person feels. We all have only our own experience and that's fine, so long as we remember that everyone else has feelings that are just as valid and important to them – to say "I don't get it, but I believe and support you anyway."
- Oxytocin also has many other effects including, for example, promoting milk production.
- Oxytocin is even produced by pet dogs and their owners during pro-social interactions between them . This provides evidence that there can be similar feelings of love and/or friendship between people and their pet dogs as between there can be between humans . (This effect can be found in other animals too , but it's less well documented.)
- One common distinction that may be drawn is the inclusion of lustful feelings, that is, sexual attraction. In the asexuality community this is usually considered a separate phenomenon to romantic attraction (although it is accepted that for most people the two go together).
- : Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS Letters. 581 (14): 2575–2579. doi:10.1016/j.febslet.2007.03.094. ISSN 1873-3468.
- : Yang, Hai-Peng; Wang, Liwei; Han, Liqun; Wang, Stephani C. (7 July 2013). Nonsocial Functions of Hypothalamic Oxytocin. ISRN Neuroscience. doi:10.1155/2013/179272. ISSN 2314-4661.
- : Odendaal, J. S. J; Meintjes, R. A (1 May 2003). Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary Journal. 165 (3): 296–301. doi:10.1016/S1090-0233(02)00237-X. ISSN 1090-0233.
- : Nance, Susan (2015). The Historical Animal. Syracuse New York: Syracuse University Press. pp. 275–277. ISBN 9780815634065.
- : Leengoed, E. van; Kerker, E.; Swanson, H. H. (1 February 1987). Inhibition of post-partum maternal behaviour in the rat by injecting an oxytocin antagonist into the cerebral ventricles. Journal of Endocrinology. 112 (2): 275–282. doi:10.1677/joe.0.1120275. ISSN 0022-0795.
- : Winston, Robert (2004). Human. Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 978-0-03-093780-4.