Origin of Love Myths and Science
Updated May 08, 2019
Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
We all love. We love our children, our families, and our romantic partners. But why do we love? What is the origin of love? Philosophers and scientists have been trying to discover the origin of love for centuries.
There are a lot of different theories about the origin of love. There are many origin of love myths, most of them quite similar. There have also been many theories put forth by biologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists about the origin of love and why we love. All agree that love, particularly romantic love, was something that evolved as humans evolved, rather than something that was inherent in humans from the beginning.
In fact, romantic love was not present in every culture and people. A study done by anthropologists discovered that romantic love was only found in about 88 percent of 166 different cultures. This suggests that love may not be as much biological as it is learned. What was the origin of love in the cultures that did represent it?
Myths on The Origin of Love
Throughout multiple cultures there are myths on the origin of love. Most love origin myths surround deities and their love for one another or their love for humans. However, there are many myths that claim the origin of love is due to the separation of humans by the gods, and those humans looking ever for their soul mate.
Plato's Origin of Love Myth
One of the most popular versions of this origin of love myth comes from the writings of the great Greek philosopher Plato. According to Plato's origin of love myth, humans were once round. Specifically, they were male from the sun and female from the earth, or androgynous with both female and male parts originating from the moon.
Since they were quite powerful and threatened to measure up to the heavens, Zeus decided to split them all in half. Apollo moved their faces toward their wounds and sewed them up, leaving the navel as a reminder of their sin. After that, humans searched all over the world for their other half.
Ultimately, humans would find their other half and wrap themselves around them, holding on to them for dear life. They would not eat and were wasting away, as a result of either looking for their love or by holding onto it too tightly. Due to this, Zeus moved their genitals to the front, allowing the androgynous to reproduce and for males to gain satisfaction.
One of the unique things about Plato's origin of love myth is that it accounts for homosexuality. The men who were separated by Zeus sought their other half, which was also male. The women who were separated by Zeus sought their other half which was female. Only the Androgynous people who were separated sought the opposite sex.
Science on the Origin of Love
There are many different studies that have been done into the origins of love. Anthropologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists have all explored the origin of love by looking at MRI neuroimaging and evolution. While nothing definitive has been discovered, there are many theories with evidence in support.
Love Began with Sex
One can look at evolution and the animal kingdom leading up to the evolution of humans to see how love may have developed. One thing that is clear is that love began with sex. Animals and then humans learned to have sex for reproduction, as one of the first things they learned. With reproduction, offspring came a familial bond and later romantic love.
Protection of Offspring
In primates today, and potentially in early humans, a female was unavailable to mate while nursing offspring. Some males would kill off the infants in order to make the female available for mating. When looking back through the evolution of primates, researchers found that infanticide preceded monogamy dating back 20 million years.
Monogamy, and the origin of love, may have begun as a way for males to protect females and their offspring. It has been suggested that this is also the origin of love in early humans. As men were protecting women and their offspring, feelings of love began to develop. The changes in how men related to women actually led to changes in the brain that created these emotions of love.
This is backed up with evolutionary science. As human brains grew, so did cooperation and groups within homo erectus. As the brains grew, more emotions and particularly feelings of love were developed.
The Brain and Love
Through MRI neuroimaging, experts have been able to determine the areas of the brain most responsible for love. These areas of the brain are actually fairly recent in the evolutionary chain of humans. The areas of the brain responsible for love did not exist in earlier ancestors of homo erectus. Only as the brain grew and gained more intricacies were humans able to feel the emotion of love.
Researchers have found that the most intense and abstract aspects of love occur in the angular gyrus part of the brain. This is also the part of the brain that is responsible for certain aspects of language such as metaphors and poetry. This part of the brain is only found in great apes and humans.
Another researcher believes that the switch to monogamy in primates and as a preference among humans began as a hijacking of the familial bond. The bond between mother and child is undoubtedly present throughout the animal kingdom and was likely present in early ancestors of humans. These researchers believe that romantic love was born out of this same ability to love between mother and child.
This theory is supported by scientific evidence of how romantic love evolves compared to the bond between mother and child. The two relationships rely on the same hormones and brain chemicals to progress and remain strong.
Progression of Romantic Love
The first stage of love is sexual desire. With the way the brain works, it is impossible to have romantic love without first desiring the object of your affections. When you desire someone, the limbic system of the brain, which is the most ancient part of the human brain, activates. This includes the insula which is responsible for intense emotions. It also includes the ventral striatum, which is the hub of the brain's reward system. You are rewarded for just looking at the person that you desire.
As desire turns into romantic love, the limbic system also plays a role by releasing dopamine and oxytocin, the two "feel good" hormones and brain chemicals. The release of these hormones is what bonds two people together.
At the same time, other functions of the brain are suppressed when one is falling in romantic love. Parts of the prefrontal cortex are deactivated, which means that the brain is literally incapable of rational decisions. Serotonin is also repressed, which is a brain chemical that helps us feel calm.
However, research shows that these effects of the brain that manifest as romantic love do not last for long. The intense emotions only really last for a few months, or perhaps an even shorter period of time called a "honeymoon stage." After this, love settles into more of a companionship bond.
During companionship, dopamine and serotonin levels normalize. However, oxytocin is still pumped out freely whenever you are around the person of your affections that you have a companionship bond. Moreover, this helps to maintain the strong bond. Notably, this is the same function of the brain that forms the mother-child bond.
Biological Origin of Love and Hate
Another theory of biologists is that the origin of love and hate resides in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is sometimes considered a "see-saw" because it is usually responsible for either or scenarios. One of these scenarios is either lust or rage, which can arguably be the foundations for love or hate. This is a popular theory because the hypothalamus is a part of the brain that is mimicked in the animal kingdom as well as humans.
Getting Help with Love
Many people who wonder about the origin of love and why we love, do so because they themselves are having problems with romantic love. If you find that you are falling in and out of love quickly or seemingly with the wrong people, you may want to evaluate your own motives, needs and desires. A therapist can help you examine your current and past relationships to find unhealthy patterns and help you make sense of why you fall in love the way you do.
If you are currently in a romantic love relationship and you are having problems within that relationship, a therapist can help you examine that relationship as well. The therapist can work with you individually or with both of you together as a couple to address problems and find ways to help you remain together in a healthy romantic love relationship. It can often be worth it to work on a current relationship rather than give up and find a new one.