Researchers have mapped where and how strongly we experience different kinds of love, covering everything from romantic love to love for strangers. The findings shed light on how context affects subjective feelings and adds to existing research on the human experience of emotions.
At every stage of life, love is essential for human development, connection, and reducing isolation. There are, of course, different kinds of love associated with different behaviors: self-love, a love of animals, parental love, romantic and sexual love, and friend love, for example. But how do we experience these different types of love in our body? Is there a difference in how strongly we feel them?
Where previous studies have focused on understanding the emotional, behavioral and neural mechanisms associated with romantic and parental love, a new study by researchers from Aalto University in Finland has gone further, mapping the human experience of 27 different types of love.
Participants were asked to color in silhouettes of bodies to show where they felt bodily sensations when experiencing a certain type of love. They were also asked how pleasant the feeling was, how intense it was physically and mentally, and how it was associated with touch. Lastly, participants were asked to rate the closeness of the different love types.
The researchers found that all types of love were felt in the head but differed in how they were felt in other parts of the body; some spread to the chest, others to the entire body.
“When we move from more strongly experienced types of love to less strongly experienced types, the sensations in the chest area become weaker,” said Pärttyli Rinne, lead and corresponding author of the study. “It may be that, for example, love for strangers or wisdom is associated with a cognitive process. It may also be that there are pleasant sensations in the head area. This is something that should be investigated further.”
“It was noteworthy, though not very surprising, that the types of love associated with close relationships are similar and the most strongly experienced,” said Rinne. “Love between persons is divided into sexual and non-sexual. The types of love that are particularly close to each other are those that have a sexual or romantic dimension.”
They found that love feelings formed a continuum, with romantic, sexual, and parental love being felt more strongly than types of love where the object is distant, such as love for strangers. Love for an abstract concept, such as moral love or a love of wisdom, was more weakly felt. The researchers also saw a correlation between the physical and mental feelings aroused by love.
“It was also interesting to find a strong correlation between the physical and mental intensity of the emotion and its pleasantness,” Rinne said. “The more strongly a type of love is felt in the body, the more strongly it’s felt in the mind and the more pleasant it is.”
The current study expands on previous research mapping the human experience of emotions. In a 2013 study, about 700 volunteers from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan were asked to paint on blank silhouettes the areas of the body that felt stimulated or deactivated by one of 14 emotions, including anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, pride and envy.
Mapping the data, the researchers found that love and happiness sparked almost entire-body activity, whereas depression had the opposite effect, dampening feelings in the arms, legs, and head. Danger and fear created strong sensations in the chest, and anger was one of the few emotions that activated the arms.
In 2018, a group of Finnish researchers mapped the organization of 100 subjective human feelings in more than 1,000 participants and found that they fall into five major categories: positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive functions, somatic states, and illnesses. They found a strong correspondence between a feeling and its corresponding bodily sensations, as well as a similarity between mind and body sensation maps across different subjective feelings. In addition to suggesting that conscious feelings stemmed from bodily feedback, the findings improved our understanding of how bodily states and illnesses influence our subjective well-being.
In the current study, the researchers point out that they were not attempting to define universal categories or a “rigid taxonomy” for love; rather, they wanted to examine how the context and object of love affected subjective feelings. They say their findings offer important empirical data on the similarities and differences seen with different types of love and indicate that there’s important variation between these love types. In essence, the researchers say love should not be oversimplified as a single, discrete emotion.
Further behavioral and neuroscientific studies may provide a greater understanding of the extent to which different love types share similar neural activation patterns.
There are, of course, different kinds of love associated with different behaviors: self-love, ...