How the Heart Decides

Not All Love is Created Equal

A colleague who was writing an article regarding “Love” relationships called me up and posed the question – where, how, and when do we meet the one we’re meant to be with. Was there an event or decision in one’s life that created the differentiation? So I said, “What I understand you are asking is how does one make a decision” and what factors influence our choices in love?” The virtue of love itself can be traced back 3,000 thousand years to the time of Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas and Augustine, the Koran, Buddha, the samurai code, Lao-Tze, and the Old Testament, lets not forget Confucius, Talmud and an American Icon Benjamin Franklin. Of course what love meant to Benjamin Franklin differs in interpretation than that of Plato or Buddha. The idea of love is reinforced and endorsed by most religions, and philosophical traditions. Love is said to be the foundation of humanity and the basis of positive social interaction with others. On their 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, even the Beatles sang the song “All You Need is Love.”  Like ice cream, love comes in many flavors, the love of a child, breed of dog, friend, type of car, style of home, color, and then there is the elusive concept “falling in love.” Of course, Scientists are the first to say that falling in love is much more than affection in return for the feeling of another person or object.  When talking about the concept of falling in love, these emotional connections are deeply embedded in the neuropathways of our brains making the one we love irreplaceable to us. For decades, scientists have studied the probability and process of how we love. The first thing I should tell you is that science has arrived at a consensus that falling head over heels in love with that special someone takes about a fifth of a second. The second most interesting bit of information was found in a new meta-analysis study conducted at Syracuse University called “Neuroimaging of Love,” by Professor Stephanie Ortique. Her research concluded that the act of falling in love produced a similar response to that of using the addictive drug cocaine that affects the brain’s faculty to think clearly, reason and apply knowledge or new information. In addition, the findings gave neuroscientists and mental health professionals’ new insights on how falling in love or being heartbroken can cause emotional stress and/or depression. The real chemistry that touches the biology of love is far too complex to put into words, as science still has not validated every single possibility for the attraction between two people. But the scope of what has been studied is how the brain processes the feelings connected to love within the mind and body.

When it comes to love it is easy to understand that the human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. Choosing who to be with or what to do is right up there with thinking associated with airplane pilots, NFL team plays, movie directors, poker players, investors, chefs, and serial killers. The emotional state when falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good euphoric inducing chemicals that trigger specific mental and physical reactions. You’ve been there, I’ve been there, and we’ve all had an emotional bout on the rollercoaster of love. Your heart goes pitter-patter; you get that warm flushed feeling all over your body, and you become an unconscious incompetent otherwise known as a babbling idiot. Think of the initial feelings of love as a mild, impermanent form of obsessive behavior. It really doesn’t matter if you’re in love, infatuated or attracted to the “right” person or the “wrong” person because in either scenario the mind and body is highly engaged with a “chemical cocktail” which overwhelms one’s ability to use their brain to exercise common sense. The feeling of attraction to that particular person is like craving your favorite food and so powerful that it can lead to long lasting happiness or problems in relationships reinforcing the notion that love is blind or at least unpredictable.  While researching love, I came to the realization that the actions of falling in love were more scientific than we may have seriously thought through. A brain in love is like a sponge drinking up the spill of each and every moment. When falling in love, did you know the brain records every smell and taste, making the pace and process of falling in love total bliss for all our senses. The brain in love becomes obsessed with a continuous desire to caress, kiss and spend time with that special someone absorbing every memory, assigning a meaning to everything experience from a first kiss to a favorite song.  When choosing that special relationship, life partner or just accepting a date, your brain becomes completely involved on many levels. The factor of perception or what I refer to as an illusion or better yet mental distortion provides the human mind a thin line between a good decision and bad decision. Falling in love takes the form of insanity that makes it difficult for friends and family to persuade the brain of a love-bitten individual that they have taken leave of their senses. The notion that love is blind depicts the early stages of love which I will equate to the honeymoon stage of relationships, idealizing the one you have chosen and only seeing the traits you want to see. Scientists and psychologists feel the brain may behave in this unseeing non-judgmental mode for a higher biological purpose. Scientists found that if judgement is delayed, the most unlikely pair could get together, survive and reproduce.

Everyone who has ever been in love wants to believe he or she at the time was a rational creature, but alas we are definitely not. When we make those love decisions we suppose that we consciously analyze the alternatives and carefully weigh the pros and cons of intelligence, attractiveness, or humor, referred to as an exercise in decisional balance. But it turns out when in love we don’t take the time to mindfully measure the pros and cons of the moment, in fact, a decisional balance sheet of comparative potential gains and losses don’t even surface till we are knee deep in the clutches of love or worse, the breaking up stage. Daniel Amen, psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist along with other neuroscientists have discovered through MRI scans that just thinking of the one you love lights up the brain’s pleasure center. It should come as no surprise the chemical cocktail is equivalent to being drugged or intoxicated. The brain’s pleasure center is composed of the neurotransmitter and hormone dopamine creating the feelings of euphoria along with the stress hormone adrenaline and norepinephrine that quickens the heart beat, strengthens the force of the heart’s contractions while constricting the blood vessels, opens up the bronchioles in the lungs, and increasing blood pressure and blood glucose. Like taking a bite of your favorite food, falling in love is fast and intense creating an obsession to be with that person 24/7. This rise in neurotransmitters and hormones explains why this instinctual drive of humans motivates their choice in a partner. You and I know this selections process as romance, which represents specific biological cues that enable us to select a desirable mate. Of course there is no rhyme or reason but in todays contemporary society researchers have found that men and women spend an enormous amount of mental and physical energy with the rituals of falling in love rather than the primal process of conceiving babies.

As long as people make decisions, they will find themselves forced to think about how they made those love, life or death choices. Researchers have written elaborate theories associated with this process of love and decision-making finding there are three phases of love, which include lust (sexual arousal), attraction (romantic attraction), and attachment (emotional bonding). Lust is purely emotional and hormonal, attraction is all about your brain becoming fixated and obsessed with every detail of that person, attachment is the body developing a tolerance to the pleasure of that person creating a state of well-being and a sense of security.  Every response is regulated by the brain’s use of chemical cocktails. Here is where the brain on cocktails gets a little sticky – you can be bonded with one person, excited by another and have a whirlwind night of sex with yet another person. Isn’t that normal on most reality TV shows? There are many aspects of the human brain accounting for the variations in attraction cues just like our food preferences or other pleasurable habits. Scientists have mapped the chemical changes that occur in the brain when in the initial stages of courtship and have seen the parts of the brain that are activated when in love and of more interest, the parts that are shut-down. What they have found is that the brain head over heels in love titters on the edge of nervous and unstable.

Like a dog with a favorite toy, ultimately it seems the human brain is no different than any other animal. Which comes down to the brain’s intellect fighting against its primal emotions inside our head then using the heart to justify and rationalize the answer we want rather than what we know is really right. I repeat, like a dog with their favorite toy. Let’s face it, life is much too contingent, complex, and emergent ever to conform to a formula surrounding the process of love. The process of falling in and out of love is all about rupture and renewal; each decision to have a relationship defines and refines our thinking, helping to mold and create our identity.  A quote I saw from stated, “The brain is the most outstanding organ. It works for 24 hours, 365 days, right from your birth until you fall in love.” In modern society, the knowing-about love has vastly outpaced knowing-how to love. Reality TV programming models love in its finest with the Bachelor, The Bachelorette, the Kardashians, and other popular shows. We can find a gazillion articles and books surrounding how-to-manage just about any aspect of match making, love making, dating, flirting, keeping the romance alive, keeping sex interesting or how to make-up and break-up. As in the romantic comedy “The Break-up,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, this movie reinforces the reality that love is not always a happy ever after situation. When the brain breaks-up it initiates a new mental context, which starts a detachment dialogue with itself -for instance, you may ask yourself how you got to this point. Then your brain creates a new mental script confirming that you have gone above and beyond for that person. You’ve cooked, picked their crap up off the floor, bought flowers and booked surprise vacations – been romantic, compassionate, and supportive. In fact, you have taken care of everything. And you just don’t feel like your appreciated. In fact, you feel like they have lost their passion for you. The problem with this belief comes down to human rationality. Knowing what should be done and being able to do it are two different things. Especially in the matters of the heart, decisions are made in the excitement of the moment, coming down to a visceral reaction to a confusing and sometimes difficult decision. The brain in love, can’t and does not reason; at least not very well. Losing love is never easy to understand much less talk about no matter what the reasoning may be. The country music scene has documented song after song of the plight of the heartbroken brain. It all comes down to those darn chemicals again. Scientists have found that when choosing a partner people may be attracted to particular biological cues, yet their selection of the ideal partner is composed of various factors that are not always based on chemistry but rather is contextual. Studies experimenting with speed dating found that modern human mate choices followed a “like-attract” pattern, where people choose mates who matched their self-perceptions. For instance, many times we talk about how our friends feel like family. And many times this extended group of friends are actually more similar to one another than our own family members. James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, who study’s shared genetics, found that smell for instance was a gene that friends were more likely to have in common. This shared commonality of smell suggests that the ability to tolerate or be drawn to a certain scent may actually influence our decision on where to go and who to hang out with. Now think a moment of all your friends and how many times you’ve actually gotten introduced or arbitrarily meet the one you will date, love, or eventually marry at one of these shared hangouts. Genetic researchers call this the “Starbucks effect” because you’re drawn to the smell of coffee where others with the same preference are attracted. And voilà you meet the one you end up marrying. You meet because you both loved coffee and you make friends because you all love coffee.  Same idea for sport, movies, or restaurants.

Love is more than a basic emotion – love also involves cognition. The brain has been studied by many scientists and is not a black box so let me give you my best take. Our brains and how we think is really a complex and messy process. Many parts of the brain are involved with the production of emotions. Whenever anyone makes a decision, the brain is full of feelings, driven by its inexplicable passions. When in love for instance, even when we try to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses influence our judgement. Those we know right from wrong, this doesn’t mean that our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. Feelings can lead us astray and cause us to make all sorts of predictable mistakes. The simple truth is that making good love decisions or any decision, requires us to use both sides of the brain. We are both rational as well as irrational. We tend to rely on statistics or the ole gut instinct. Researcher tells us that there are three kinds of LOVE. First is love of the person who gives you comfort, acceptance, assistance and who nurtures and bolsters your self-confidence. Second, is love of the person who depends on us for these life provisions. Third, is the idea of romantic love, idealizing another person, their strengths and virtue while conveniently downplaying their short comings.


Honestly decisions of the heart are based on your “frame of reference” an illusion created by mental distortion which is composed of past experiences combined with your five senses, personal beliefs, not-so-valid assumptions of life in a complex world. As a result natural selection gives us a brain that is enthusiastically pluralistic.  Which means that reality is composed of a multiplicity of ultimate feelings and emotions. Some of the time the heart needs to consult the brain and reason through the options and carefully analyze the possibilities. The secret I think is knowing when and how to use “perceived thought.” When trying to determine whether that special someone is the right one, by thinking about how we arrived at this junction. It comes down to a real time life simulation. There is a benefit in experiencing various love-hate scenarios and that comes with taking time out in the real world, exposure to a variety of situations, individuals and ages.  Someone needs to develop a computer program that allows us to practice falling in love and make decisions – then cues us on helpful behaviors for successful relationships development. Scientifically, we need to understand our choices in terms of competing brain regions or the firing rate of neurons. I know by now you’re thinking, OMG so cold and scientific but unfortunately this is at the heart of the matter. Knowing ourselves from the inside out can reveal many unexpected surprises.

Love is the force that bonds and unifies and makes creation possible while the power of love enables our lesser self to rediscover the better self. Love is allowing your brain to slip between the cracks of perception, of what appears as real. Then comes true love, with its preexistent unknown information unseen by the brain yet with enough power to retain the love experienced at first sight. The only real geography in love are the mental markers created by the brain’s memories; it is not whom we love but rather what we have become in the process of love that makes the difference in a life. Love is a way for our brain to transform and experience one’s self over and over again. Love is the standard and choice drives the process. First, the brain doesn’t make any choices in a vacuum but rather in the context of the real world or should I say your world composed of past and present experiences. Second, we can’t make any choices without emotions or emotional intelligence.

When an individual in love is drawn to a specific person, the mind is trying to tell them that he or she should choose that option. Yet, subconsciously, that individual has already unconsciously assessed the alternatives. That analysis takes place outside of the conscious awareness of the mind and converts that assessment into a positive emotion just like an obsession to eat your favorite food or purchase a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Each and every person has a different interpretation or flavor of what love looks and feels like making it difficult to define. The basis for the emotion itself is mysterious, begging the question why do I love this person over that person. In his book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, Gordon Livingston, M.D. asked his readers to think about this definition, “We love someone when the importance of his or her needs and desires rises to the level of our own.” Then of course he cut to the chase and gives his reader an operational question regarding proof of love, “Would you take a bullet for that person?” He then acknowledges that of course this idea is extreme since few of us can say with certainty what we would do if our self-preservation was challenged by our love for another. The virtue of love is reflected as the manner in which we choose to behave. While the actions of love influence our brain to operate differently, narrowing our focus towards the one we desire. Let’s take a moment to discuss ones capacity to love and to be loved by another.

If you find it relatively easy to get close to others, and you feel comfortable depending on them and having them depend on you. And don’t often feel worried about being left out and abandoned, or getting too close then you have secure love.

If you feel somewhat uncomfortable being close to others, feel your partner wants more intimacy than you are comfortable giving, find it difficult to trust them completely and allow yourself to depend on them or get nervous when they get too close then you have avoidant love.

If you find yourself being reluctant to get close to others, worry that that person doesn’t really love you or won’t want to commit to a relationship or merge completely with you than you have an anxious love.

I am not sure if you can really sway the outcome of the heart to love or not to love. To think we can capture the love of someone strikes me as more of a hopeful fiction movie with Meg Ryan that we all cling to in such heart filled situations. Real honest to GOD love doesn’t afford us the luxury of caring or not caring but rather affirms the act of caring. The process of “how” we fell in love can reveal itself slowly, the gradual accretion of all the seemingly mundane every day acts of being responsible, kind, and compromising in the face of adversity. True unconditional love is stripped of all its bells and whistles. The process of love itself creates baggage and emotional damage that accrues overtime, forgiven yet never forgotten. Many have lost the “look of love,” a connection between saying “I love you” and understanding the real meaning of it. Most individuals simply adopt a scientifically removed state towards love to insulate themselves from love’s pain and uncertainties. As a result, they become emotionally stunted, less likely to care about relationships. Falling in love is an amazing process, yet the commitment of love is defined by inevitable heartbreak built on decades shared with the person you are likely going to see die.

Love comes in numerous shapes and sizes. When you find yourself in love, the thinking-brain connection is severed, like a computer with a virus, we can’t comprehend our own emotions because we have lost access to the brain’s wealth of opinions that we normally rely on for those choices. All of a sudden you no longer know what to think about that person. It becomes very confusing as to what is a good idea. The end result is that it becomes impossible to make a decent decision. What will they like, where should we go, how should you look, dress, and talk, comes down to a Las Vegas crapshoot. The thinking process has been disrupted, our reasoning smashed apart. Love is like a daytime soap opera. A new episode is filmed every single day. Think about it, everything feels sincere, even when what is happening on screen is completely crazy. When it comes to love just enjoy the moment and when it doesn’t feel right, don’t try to make it work by making sense. That is just nonsense. The silver lining is that everybody possesses a wellspring of love, renewable at any time, allowing us to be sensitive to impressions, desire, and the emotional state of love. The brain in love sees the possibilities, develops a broader way of thinking, allowing you to transform your life for the better by building your resources and strengths. As the seeds of love grow, our brain flourishes with new possibilities, the capacity to be remarkably more resilient and content with our circumstances in life.

The Successful Heart

Tolerating the complexity of love is probably the greatest challenge of the mind; requiring the same effort as it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle. In 1989 Psychology professor Bob Levenson, a UC Berkeley professor discovered that loving couples that made it to “death do us part,” instead of divorce, worked at problem solving and compromise.  His researcher then uncovered another interesting twist – it was the wives not husbands that calmed marital conflicts, which strengthened the couple’s chances of staying together. Levenson found that couples developed appreciative understanding for each other’s values and ideas, taking pride in their partners’ accomplishments, and no longer attempted to change one another but rather exercised acceptance. 78 pairs of fortysomething married 15-plus years and 78 pairs of sixtysomething married 30 years concluded that couples have plenty of problems, conflicts, and unforeseen difficulty yet in a loving committed relationship these couples learned to work through the day-to-day challenges. Researchers believe the reason most of these couples made it to the 15-year mark was their ability and willingness to resolve life’s problems together. It came down to the spouse being a safe harbor and best friend. The study determined that wives were the key, not the husbands when it came down to de-escalation of a heated argument. If the wife could calm down shortly after the conflict, the marriage had a better chance of succeeding. And the husband’s ability to regulate his own emotions had little to no role in long-term marital satisfaction. Now that is a brain reframe if I ever heard one. In today’s world of DNA testing researchers have discovered a connection between relationship satisfaction and gene variant. It turns out you and I inherit the gene variant from our parents. Couples in the studies were found to be unhappier in a marriage that was full of negative emotion, like anger and contempt, or a short mental fuse. On the other hand, happy couples displayed more moments of good emotion, including laughter, humor and affection. Happy or unhappy you have to be careful in drawing any vast conclusions around DNA, genetics and marriage. But you must admit that this research does introduce a whole new wrinkle into the understanding of relationships of the heart.

In excavating the brain, how you love someone may hold few clues about your potential relationship. Like all thought provoking decisions some people are predisposed to being happy or unhappy, judgmental or non-judgmental, skinny or overweight. Just like being on a diet, managing your weight starts with the mental attitude of eating healthy and working out, and will lead to good health. What seems to ring true about the well-shaped and happy relationships is that they just keep connecting, good or bad, for better or for worse, conflicts or celebration, and just work at it.  Understanding the biological cues and necessities behind the process of love gives insight into the complexity between instincts and impulses. To uncover your full capacity for love, consider your life as a whole. Think about each and every time your brain felt in love? What were the triggers that set love in motion and what nourished its growth? What were you doing at the time? Viewing love in this way can sharpen your capacity to see love as a momentary state rather than a word that defines a relationship between two people. There is no one answer, rule of thumb, generalization, consensus, or magic potion that allows love between two people to flourish. Humans send and respond to all sorts of biological cues from one another and these cues can trigger feelings and attraction.  Yet it is a brain imperative to understand what works for you because scientists have repeatedly found that love is highly individualized, reflecting a sense of our current circumstances. How your brain falls in love might be completely invisible to family, friends and the general public yet everybody’s capacity to give love or be loved by another may differ greatly, which means your path to discovery will be unique. These intimate relationships could best be seen as the movie “Groundhogs Day” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell or “Edge of Tomorrow” with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt as the products of recurrent surges of love. A word of advice – love, learn then love again. Whether looking for a commitment, simply dating or deciding to have an affair, when falling in love don’t drown yourself in words and emotions, because we are not what we think, feel or say but rather what we do.


>Robert W. Levenson, Unraveling Emotional Mysteries, Observer Vol. 27, No. 1 January 2014. How Our Emotional Lives Mature: Changes and New Strengths, University of California Television (UCTV).

>Rob Stein, Do We Choose Our Friends Because They Share Our Genes? NPR, July 14, 2014.

>Loyola University Health System, Science Daily, What falling in love does to your heart and brain. February 6, 2014.

>Daniel Amen, The Brain in Love: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life. Three Rivers, 2009.

>Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences – PNAS. “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Web. 06 November 2009. Abstract

>The Science of Romance: Why We Love-TIME.” Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews –, Web. 06 November. 2009.,99171,1704672,00.html.

>True Love and Chemistry: Exploring Myth and Reality. “ENotAlone Relationship advice and articles. Web. 06 November. 09

>Brenda Schaeffer. Is it Love or Is It Addiction? Hazelden, 2009. Print.

>Helen. Romantic Love: An fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice. N. Page print.

>Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., Authentic Happiness, Free Press 2002.

>Alan O. Ross, Personality: Theories and Processes, Harper Collins College Outline, Pg. 193-194 Harpers Collins Publishing, Inc. 1992.

>Winifred Gallager, RAPT, Attention and the Focused Life, The Penguin Press, 2009.

>Gordon Livingston, M.D., Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, Da Capo Press Books, 2004.