As another Valentine’s Day steamrolls its way in to the consciousness of lovers and loners alike, different interpretations of just what “love” is continue to perplex people of all ages and sexual persuasions.
Some see love as a breadbasket of butterflies, while others see it as a fleeting moment of infatuation. At any rate, a standard definition of love is as difficult to find as love itself.
But psychology researchers have just begun attempting to determine which part of the brain is responsible for emotions, including love.
Social neuroscience, the study of which parts of the brain are responsible for emotion, is a new field, psychology professor Ellen Berscheid said. She said it has been studied for about five years.
“It’s hard to figure other people out,” Berscheid said. “From the beginning of time, people have been trying to figure out if someone likes them.”
Social neuroscience boils down to understanding the physical aspects of the brain – chemicals and signals – with regard to why people feel the way they do, she said.
The field is sure to interest the public as research develops, Berscheid said, but interested laypeople should keep the possibilities in perspective.
“One of the reasons people are interested is they think ‘maybe someday, I can put someone in a machine and see if they like me.’ That won’t happen,” she said.
Berscheid said researchers generally group emotions as positives and negatives.
“We don’t distinguish contempt from fear,” she said.
She also said researchers have difficulties with social neuroscience because emotions are not easy to categorize objectively.
“Social psychology itself has trouble enough finding what love is, and the different varieties,” Berscheid said. “Often what is love to one person is not the same for another.”
Social neuroscience fits in to the general study of how people behave and process their thoughts and environments, said Chad Marsolek, a psychology professor and researcher.
“The main idea, the main hope, is that by bringing brain evidence in to the picture, we’ll have a clearer and more compelling understanding of our social behaviors,” Marsolek said.
Berscheid and Marsolek said finding and categorizing the physical nature of love and affection – positive emotions – will be more difficult than working with negative emotions.
Berscheid said negative emotions have played a larger role in mankind’s evolution and have been studied more by researchers because they are more prominent.
“An animal that is a danger to you is more important than someone who is going to help you or enhance your wealth,” she said.
Marsolek said love is not something one can test in a laboratory.
“With a rat, you can’t test for love,” Marsolek said of current neuroscience-based studies. “It’s really easy to get rodents to be fearful. But who knows if they fall in love? It’s a nonconcrete concept. But all indications are that they do experience fear.”