Neurology and Neurosurgery

What happens in your brain when you experience love?

Parents with their young child being loving, hugging and holding hands on a couch.


Discover why love has a profound impact on your mental and physical health and read some tips for experiencing love, whether for a partner, family member, friend or pet.


By Paul Wright, MD, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Neuroscience Institute, Nuvance Health


Love and belonging are core, basic human needs. Love inspires and motivates many of our actions. Think about all the songs, movies, books and art about love or the absence of it. How about the emotionally driven conflicts over love? It is universal while also being deeply personal, whether it is the love you have for romantic partners, family, friends, pets or even activities you are passionate about. Love can make us feel exuberated, connected and accepted, while a lack of it can make us feel lonely, isolated and depressed.


But, why? What exactly happens in the brain when we feel love?


The neuroscience of feeling love


When you experience love, your brain releases feel-good hormones, including dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. These hormones enhance your mood and overall sense of well-being. Dopamine, the “reward hormone,” reinforces the pleasure we feel from love and encourages us to seek more of these feelings.


Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” promotes trust, connections and bonding with others. The brain also releases oxytocin when we exercise and listen to music. It makes sense that physical activity and listening to music can be therapeutic if you are experiencing heartache.



Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers can see the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain light up when we experience love. The VTA is the pleasure and reward area of the brain. The VTA is in the middle of the brain and influences our dislikes, stress management, addictions, learning and memory. It is no wonder why love is often associated with these feelings, habits and cognitive processes. It explains why love can be addictive and why the memory of loved ones can trigger strong emotions.


Other parts of the brain affected by love include the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is responsible for your emotional response and forming emotional memories. The hippocampus is responsible for processing emotions as well as learning and developing short-term memories into long-term ones. Finally, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function; it makes connections throughout your brain so you can plan, think, remember and practice self-control, to name a few critical functions.


When you are in a loving relationship, blood flow increases to these areas of the brain. As you can see, regularly stimulating these areas of your brain can enhance your emotional and cognitive function.


The effect of love on cognitive health


Experiencing appropriate, healthy love can boost cognitive function. Long-term love activates the angular gyrus part of the brain, which is involved with complex language processes. Long-term love also activates the part of the brain involved with anticipating the needs of loved ones, called the mirror neuron system. For these reasons, studies show long-term love enhances thinking and creativity skills.



The effect of love on mental health


Love can have a profound effect on mental health. Appropriate, healthy love promotes belonging and purpose, and in turn, can boost mood and decrease anxiety, stress and depression. Conversely, the absence of love or loss of love can have the reverse effect, explaining why breakups with romantic partners and losing loved ones can trigger an intense emotional response.


Neuroscience supports the well-known saying, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Over time, the hormones released in the brain from experiencing love can lead to positive behavioral and emotional changes. These changes include increased empathy, generosity and resilience. The lasting impact of love on the brain can also promote happiness and a desire to spend time with others.



The effect of love on physical health


Appropriate, healthy love can have physical health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system. Studies have shown that loving relationships can reduce stress levels from feeling cared for, comforted and safe. Further, the hormones love triggers in the brain help with modulating your stress response. 



Additionally, love floods the brain with feel-good hormones that can improve your sleep and motivate you to make healthy choices, such as eating well and exercising. All these healthy habits boost your immune system and help you stay well.


Different forms of love and their effects on the brain


Love extends beyond romantic relationships. The bond with family members, friends, pets and activities that bring you joy can all stimulate the brain’s love pathways. Experiencing different types of love is crucial for emotional development and well-being. Particularly, when you experience changes in love, like the loss of a loved one, it can help you cope when you have other sources of love.


Non-romantic love, such as familial bonds and friendships, plays a significant role in emotional health. When these relationships are healthy and positive, they can help build your confidence and self-esteem and offer acceptance, security and support.


Top 5 ways to feel and express love


Here are five ways to experience love, trigger the release of feel-good hormones in your brain and gain the mental and physical health benefits of this universal feeling:


  • Engage in quality time: Whether it is a date night with a partner, a family game night or coffee with a friend, quality time deepens bonds and strengthens emotional connections. To feel love fully, aim to be present and distraction-free by putting away your devices.




  • Acts of service: Doing something special for someone shows you care about and appreciate them, strengthening the emotional connection.


  • Shared experiences: Build bonds by creating new memories together, from cooking dinner, learning something new or traveling, there are countless ways to make memories with loved ones.



The bottom line: The neuroscience of love explains why it is such a critical part of our lives. Cherish your loving relationships — and the joy, companionship and comfort they bring, as well as the cognitive, mental and physical health benefits. From sharpening memory and thinking skills to boosting mood and the immune system, feeling and expressing love can help everyone feel happier, healthier and more connected to each other.