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Is Love Just a Biological Drive For Emotional Balance?


We human beings were designed by evolution not only to survive, but, in the broadest sense, to love. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended heavily on the band or group for their survival, and the emotion or feeling of love is typically what reinforces the close emotional bonds that stabilize such a group. In one sense, love is like any other evolved emotion: it was created and sustained by natural selection because it worked – it helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive, thrive, and reproduce. But love is, in another sense, an entirely unique emotion and phenomenon that, as we’ll see, appears to have arisen from an incredibly powerful, primal, and almost transcendent force.

In general, our capacity for love is most limited and restricted when we’re in ‘survival mode’ – when we feel, consciously or unconsciously, that our survival is at risk. When we’re out of survival mode, on the other hand, in what could be called a state of ‘homeostasis’ – a state of balance or equilibrium, where we feel physically and emotionally ‘safe’ – our capacity to feel and express love is generally greatest.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, we are all biologically designed, like every other living thing, to be in homeostasis whenever possible. When we experience out-of-balance, non-homeostatic emotional states such as a strong hunger for food, these emotional states are designed to motivate behaviors – such as finding and eating food – that bring us back into homeostasis, or into a state of physical and emotional equilibrium. The general tendency for our bodies and brains to ‘want’ to be in homeostasis can be thought of as generating a global force or drive within us that we could call the ‘homeostatic drive’.

We’ve also discussed what Todd Ritchey and I have proposed is a dysfunctional ‘addictive’ drive, which arises from ‘evolutionary mismatch’ effects that occur whenever people live in environments – such as modern cities – that they are not biologically or evolutionarily adapted for. The addictive drive tends to throw people out of balance or equilibrium, into states of survival mode. Survival-mode states like anxiety or fear can become dysfunctionally reinforced in the brain, we’ve proposed, because they trigger the release of stress hormones that various lines of evidence suggest can deliver unconscious biochemical rewards to the brain. In this way, literal biochemical addictions to distressing, survival-mode emotional states like anxiety or fear can develop in nearly all of us. The addictive drive therefore throws us out of balance, into survival mode, and directly opposes the homeostatic drive, which is always seeking to bring us into balance, or homeostasis.

What I want to propose in this post is that the homeostatic drive is, in effect, the force of love.

Our first experience of love almost always derives from interactions with our mothers when we’re infants. When you were a fetus in your mother’s womb, you were quite literally part of your mother’s homeostatic drive, because when a pregnant mother is in homeostasis, her fetus will generally be also. And it’s been shown that when a pregnant mother is very anxious, for example, and is thus in survival mode, the stress hormone cortisol will not only be released into her circulation, but will also cross the placenta into the circulation of the fetus, thus presumably throwing the fetus into some form of survival mode as well. So whether the fetus is in homeostasis or in survival mode depends directly and almost solely on the mother’s homeostatic state and thus on her homeostatic drive.

Read more: John Montgomery, Ph.D., PyschologyToday


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