What Does Lust Mean? Separating Lust From Love And Attraction

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Perhaps you've encountered the word "lust" in a romance novel, a dramatic movie, or a discussion of the "seven deadly sins." In some contexts, lust is looked down upon. However, knowing what lust means and why it occurs can be helpful before casting judgments. Like many human emotions, lust can be complicated. 

Wondering if it’s lust, love, or something else?

What is lust? 

In the psychological community, lust is an intense psychological impulse that leads someone to attempt to acquire a person or object of desire. Lust is often used in a sexual context, described as an intense sexual desire that can lead to unexpected and sometimes unacceptable behavior. 

Some psychologists use lust interchangeably with "libido" or sex drive, describing it as a "craving" for sexual gratification associated primarily with hormones. Evolutionarily, the human sex drive evolved as a motivator to seek out sex with an appropriate partner. 

When discussing these definitions, it may be helpful to note that humans can monitor and override the power of lust. In addition to lust and love, the brain is equipped with a capacity for reason, choice, and self-directed action in sexual and non-sexual contexts.

Lust, attraction, and attachment

Some researchers break the development of love into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. These emotional systems evolved to promote mating, reproduction, and social connection.


Lust can be a powerful feeling, often occurring alongside attraction and attachment. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that lust and attraction do not always co-occur. Experts have found that people can express sexual desire for someone without feeling deep attraction or attachment. 


Unlike lust, attraction involves increased energy and attention toward a preferred partner. You may describe attraction as "passionate" or obsessive love or infatuation. When you're attracted to someone, you may think about them frequently and experience a sense of exhilaration. 


Attachment is characterized by an emotional union and "companionate love" for a partner. When emotionally attached to someone, you may have a sense of calm and social comfort.

What do these emotional systems mean? 

These three emotional systems can function independently or in tandem, and they're experienced in varying sequences by different people. For instance, you may begin a relationship with someone merely for sexual pleasure but develop an emotional attachment as you get to know them better. 

Ultimately, there may not be one "correct" way to experience these feelings. Depending on your gender identity, sexuality, and experience of attraction, you may encounter only some or none of these emotions, which is healthy. 

Lust in the brain

To better understand the science behind social emotions, some researchers use imaging technology to study lust in the brain. 

Several studies have shown that the brain's hypothalamus plays a significant role in lust. A 2002 study, for instance, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study participants' brains while they viewed scenes from erotic films. Based on the fMRI footage, several brain regions "lit up" in response to these scenes, including areas related to visual processing, emotional processing, and reward. These areas – most notably, the hypothalamus – are also associated with sexual arousal. The results show the biological reality and power of lust. 

Hormones and lust

The hypothalamus also stimulates testosterone production in the testes and estrogen in the ovaries. Regardless of gender identity, testosterone can increase libido – and, therefore, lust – in many people.

The production of testosterone and estrogen is indirectly stimulated by gonadotropin-releasing hormones (GnRH) produced by the human endocrine system. Once produced, GnRH stimulates the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, which makes and releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH are known as "gonadotropins," essential to reproductive health.

In the gynecological reproductive system, a decrease in FSH and an increase in LH stimulates ovulation, often associated with greater sexual motivation. In the andrological reproductive system, LH affects the production of testosterone and androgens, while FSH influences sperm production. Daily and monthly, your individual biology can influence your experience of lust, love, and everything in between. 

Note that everyone's body is different. While scientists may use these hormonal systems to explain changes in sex drive and other emotions, your hormonal balance may differ due to a health condition, lifestyle, and other considerations. If you're concerned about your hormones, a licensed doctor can be a beneficial resource for personalized care and a professional treatment plan.

Lust vs. love

While lust and love are related, they're not entirely the same. Compared to lust, which may be based on thoughts of the present, love may be based on more thoughts of the distant future.

In a study of lust and love in relationships, the researchers defined love as a wish to expand oneself, grow, and care for another person, combined with infatuation and emotional bonding. Comparatively, they described lust as sexual desire, which can include the wish, need, or drive to seek out sexual objects or engage in sexual activities. 

These broad definitions are based on other researchers' studies of love and lust. You may apply your experiences to form personal definitions of lust, love, attachment, and attraction.

Love on the brain

Like lust, the science of love is rooted in the brain. In a foundational study of the effects of romantic love on the brain, researchers used fMRI imaging to analyze participants' brains while they looked at photos of romantic lovers. The researchers found that dopamine levels, the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, increased in participants' brains. In addition, there was more activity in brain regions associated with reward, expectation, pleasure, and attention. 

Brain regions like the ventral tegmental area, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex are all involved in the brain's "reward" circuit, which is sensitive to rewarding activities, such as sex, yummy food, and other pleasurable experiences.

Even in a long-term relationship, it may be possible to revive the initial spark of attraction, excitement, and sense of novelty people often feel when falling in love for the first time. Engaging in more sexual activity, for instance, can increase oxytocin, also called the "love hormone," which strengthens attachment to your partner. 

Continually investing in your relationship with your partner can help you combat the potentially destructive impacts of lust. Brain science enhances understanding of both lust and love. With this knowledge, you may better notice and appropriately respond to individual needs for love, sex, and companionship.

Professional support options 

Whether you're looking for more support in a romantic relationship or want to learn more about love, working with a therapist may guide you in navigating your love life. 

Some people prefer face-to-face therapy to discuss these concerns. However, some clients are utilizing online therapy to support their mental health, well-being, and relationships, all from the comfort of their homes. Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can match clients to licensed therapists quickly, often within 48 hours of signing up. Researchers are still studying the long-term value of online therapy for people of all backgrounds, but the current results are promising. 

One study focused on an online therapy program for "underserved" couples—romantic couples who lacked high-quality mental health care due to racial discrimination, lack of income, and other socioeconomic factors. The researchers found that an internet-based, relationship-focused intervention could be effective for under-served couples lacking means to seek high-quality therapy. They also noted the importance of culturally sensitive online and in-person interventions to ensure clients are seen and heard. 


The brain is designed to experience lust, love, attraction, and other powerful emotions. Understanding the science behind these feelings can help you better understand your connections. With this knowledge, you may become more aware of emotions that can arise during an intimate relationship.

A therapist can provide professional support as you work through these feelings and guide you in improving the strength and stability of your relationships. Healthy love is sustainable love. Although it can be challenging, it's a worthwhile goal for many people, and you're not alone in seeking it.

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