Dan Yarosh

The Evolutionary Biology of Rock and Roll - Part III

What Does Love Feel Like?

Copyright Daniel B. Yarosh, Ph.D. 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

The most popular topic among Rock & Roll songs is passionate, infatuated, romantic love – either the aching loneliness right before falling in love, or the dazzling, euphoric, all-consuming love right afterward.  The gift of these songs is they help us learn more than what we think about love, but they also tell us about the real bodily sensations produced by the yearning for love.

People not enthralled in love can be in physical pain.  In Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Cosby, Still and Nash sang: “Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud. I am lonely.”  Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead reported seeking medical care and asked his family doctor “Mister M.D., can you tell me, what’s ailing me?” The answer from his physician was “all you really need [is] good lovin’.

On the other hand, psychiatrists are concerned about people who are in the first throws of love because it resembles a form of mental illness [1].  Otherwise healthy people in infatuated love lose mental concentration and are easily distracted from tasks at hand.  They obsess about the appearance and behavior of the object of their affections; fantasize about the future or become morbidly fearful of coming events; and of course become jealous easily over irrational interpretation of other peoples’ relationships, motives and actions. 

Rock & Roll music recognizes the mixture of pleasurable and painful feelings of people in love.  John Cougar Mellancamp wrote a song entitled Hurt So Good, in which he explained: “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should.  You make it hurt so good.”  Coldplay, in Hurts Like Heaven, sang: “Oh you use your heart as a weapon, and it hurts like heaven.” 

But where exactly does it hurt, and where are these feelings physically located?  If love is only a mental process these feelings would just leave a big headache.  But Rock songs have located the pain of love in various parts of the body.

Traditionally, feelings of love have been identified in the heart, although medical science has no reason to think this mound of muscle has any cognitive abilities.  The reason might be, as Frankie Lymon explained in Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, that love made his heart “skip this crazy beat”.  For Bonnie Tyler, love is “a heartache, nothing but a heartache.” 

We often have intense feelings that affect our stomach and digestion.  About a breakup On Saturday, The Clarks sang “I’m losing friends, I’m losing face, I’m losing weight.” And in a brilliant mixed metaphor, Bruce Springsteen made the connection from the intense yearning for love to the stomach and heart, when he wrote “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

But we feel the effects of passionate love in other vital organs.  Taylor Swift feels it in her lungs when she sings “I can’t breath without you, but I have to.”  Likewise, Queen wrote to a lover “You take my breath away.” And David Gray felt it in his peripheral circulation when he sang “Feels like lightening running through my veins every time I look at you.

These are not fanciful poetry lines but descriptions of real, measurable bodily sensations.  Scientists from Finland have recently confirmed these Rock song diagnoses [2]. In a series of experiments, 700 subjects were asked to color in the parts of a silhouette body that were affected by emotional words.  While people localized emotions such as fear to the head and chest, and disgust to the head and stomach, thoughts of love lit up the entire body, excepting the legs and feet.

Why should thinking about love, a conscious mental action of the brain, result in physical pain in internal organs, such as stomach, lung, heart and circulation?

Many researchers have studied people’s brains while they contemplated sexual desire and love.  A recent review of over 20 such studies concluded that love begins in the region of the brain, the insula, which collects bodily sensations as part of the somatosensory cortex [3].  Love grows out the euphoric rewarding bodily sensations of desire.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains in his recent book [4] the evolutionary development of our brains.  The nervous system began as a way to monitor and adjust an animal’s internal functions, such as breathing and digestion, as a way to improve health – what is called homeostasis.  The brain contains regions with “maps” of the body to keep track of these changes, called the homunculus on the somatosensory cortex.

Then the nervous system began sensing and responding to the external environment, for dangers such as toxins or predators, as a way to improve survival.  The brain mapped the input from these external senses in another brain region.  It then put together these two maps of internal and external sensations, so that it calculates what it needs from internal signals, and uses external markers to find the solution. 

The neural connection between sensing the internal state and the external state creates visceral feelings.  Needing or avoiding something is mapped closely to sensations from within the body. This results in visceral emotions such as disgust at dirty things, and painful longing for necessary things.  A primary need of any creature is to reproduce and pass on its genes.  That need creates the “gut feeling” of love.

Next the brain took a look at itself, and thus became aware that there is a “me” and an “other” – what Damasio calls “self comes to mind.”  Saliency, meaning what is important to me and what is not, is the basis of consciousness.  Our conscious contemplation of what our self needs creates all the Rock songs about love. 

Wanting love or being in love are strong, internally generated survival needs, and they are naturally closely mapped to body sensations that motivate us to obtain it.  When the maps connect we feel visceral sensations of love.

And that, Mr. Lyman, is why fools fall in love.

1. Frank Tillis. Love Sick. Avalon, NY 2004.
2. Lauri Nummenmaa et al., Bodily maps of emotions.  Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), volume 111, pages 646-651, January 14, 2014.
3. Cacioppo S, Bianchi-Demicheli F, Frum C, Pfaus JG, and Lewis JW. The common neural bases between sexual desire and love: A multilevel kernel density fMRI analysis. J Sex Med 12;9:1048–1054.
4. Antonio Damasio. Self Comes to Mind. Vintage Books, NY 2012.