Home » Psychobabble! » What is love: you fill that basal ganglia shaped hole in my heart

What is love: you fill that basal ganglia shaped hole in my heart

Warning – you may want to take a look at my earlier post “dual process memory and you” for information about the basal ganglia and the hippocampus (https://psychddouglas.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/dual-process-memory-and-you/). The following entry does not explain the memory processes in detail like my earlier post does. Try to read that over if you have questions about the basal ganglia, or feel free to ask in a comment! 

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Although we may credit the traditional romantic celebration of the holiday to Chaucer (if we can trust Wikipedia anyways), it never stops us from talking about love and relationships. But what exactly are these feelings of love that we feel for one another, or perhaps fail to feel at times? To some psychologists, it’s all just an illusion. Take our famous psychologist friend Dr. Drew Pinsky host of many relationship programs such as “Loveline,” and “Strictly Sex, with Dr. Drew.” He always liked to ask this question to everyone about relationships… “is it love or lust?” He was not asking about a person’s relationship, but asking other psychologists or experts if they thought love was a real experience or something we just labeled our sex drive.

Dr. Drew does raise an interesting point. If we listen to behavioral psychology, we’d say love is nothing more than exposure to another human that receives a high rate of reinforcement. Imagine that reinforcement to be good feelings, sexual relations, sharing experiences together, and so on. It’s a compelling statement, but it does not really seem to go far enough.

It really omits the chemical processes related to becoming attached to someone, compared to simply being reinforced by something. These are two qualitatively distinct processes due to the use of oxytocin. For those of you who’ve taken a few developmental courses, or are familiar with infant care, this hormone might sound familiar to you. It’s the hormone that is naturally produced in our bodies that is related to attachment. Let’s talk a bit about attachment, and then we’ll compare adult to child attachment.

Attachment in children

  • Attachment in infants occurs with almost mechanical precision. Our species, along with many others, have offspring that can be described as excessively cute. Clearly that’s not a scientific term… if you want to know, we call this a “modal action pattern.” Modal action patterns are part of our genetics; these are not learned. They occur in almost all humans across every single culture. Why is it that we all think babies are cute? We did not learn to see babies this way. There are a few features infants possess that we, as a species, find attractive. The qualities are as follows if I recall correctly…
  1. Head disproportionately too large for body
  2. Large eyes compared to head
  3. Small nose
  4. elastic/soft skin
  5. symmetry
  6. large ears
  • http://www.mesacc.edu/dept/d10/asb/origins/selection/mickey3.html
  • Yeah that’s the evolution of Mickey Mouse. What does that have to do with anything? Well as you can see the artists refined him to look more and more appealing over time. We didn’t know the formula for cuteness back then, but as you can see he really captures that “cute” look. Any characters you see as cute normally share these qualities.

Oxytocin and attachment

  • Oxytocin is a hormone that allows attachment to occur. It also serves as a natural pain killer. Is it any wonder that the highest amount of oxytocin to ever be in a human’s system is inside of a woman during childbirth? Oxytocin also gets released during breastfeeding as well. Researchers have found that individuals with disruptions with their oxytocin levels have trouble attaching to the child which leads to a large pile of problems.
  • When else does oxytocin get released? It gets released during sex within males and females. Typically, females experience a much higher release of the hormone than males during intercourse.
  • Also, any time a parent and child interact, or two attached individuals for that matter, you should see an increase in their expression of oxytocin. If you’ve ever heard someone state, “I just feel better with you around,” they could be telling you the real truth, not just a romantic gesture. As I said before, oxytocin can reduce reported levels of pain, so if you have a strong oxytocin response with someone, this could (arguably) make one feel a bit better.

Attachment defined

  • Attachment is normally defined in a few ways. I will only be looking at secure and insecure attachment as it is not my area of expertise to look at all the tiniest details of this topic.
  • Secure attachment – This occurs when the parent responds to the needs of the child consistently (the majority of the population is securely attached, so don’t worry too much!!). The child learns that they can trust their caregiver and all the child’s basic needs will be fulfilled without disruption. At this point, allow me to stress the important of attending to the child whenever it seeks attention. The child does not need to be trained to cry it out, as this leads to insecure attachment and lots of disorder. Self soothing abilities of infants are almost non-existent. Facilitation of secure attachment is more important than the notion that some individuals have of “if you train the kid that you will come and help him/her with every single problem, they will never learn to fix things themselves.” That’s truly an insane notion, as an infant lacks the ability to change their environment in a meaningful way. They also lack the ability to control their attention (engagement/disengagement makes it hard for them to change their focus unless things are removed from sight) so it requires parental intervention to fix a lot of these problems. Ok ok ok, enough about that. I just cannot overstate the dangers of “cry it out” enough.
  • Insecure attachment – Insecure attachment occurs when an infant is unable to have their needs met consistently. Insecure attachment is thought to lead to a host of mental disorders in young adults and adolescents. This can also mean that a parent is abusive towards the child in the most unfortunate of cases.
  • What does secure/insecure attachment look like?
  • Method – the most common test for attachment is the “strange situation.” The strange situation test is quite simple. A parent brings a child into a room with a few toys, and an experimenter inside. The parent and child interact with the toys and the experimenter to ensure the infant habituates to the new person and the environment. So a few minutes later, the parent leaves the child in the room with the experimenter. A minute or two later, the parent comes back inside the room.
  • Secure – when an infant is securely attached they will always cry when the parent leaves the room. They will be pretty upset while the parent is gone and the experimenter will probably not be able to sooth the child. This is all perfectly normal behavior. The parent re-enters the room and within a few moments the infant should begin to settle down as the parent soothes the infant. 
  • Insecure – When the infant is insecurely attached they can have a number of strange responses. When the parent leaves the room, the child may start crying. Sometimes, the child does not react at all to the parent leaving, which is a bad sign (avoidant). If the child cries, as expected, but is extremely hard to soothe when the parents return, this can be a sign of insecure attachment as well (ambivalent). Ambivalent attachment occurs when the parent is very inconsistent. The infant thinks the parent will leave them again, so they cling on for dear life, as they have no idea if their parent will come back for them again. I know this is all extremely sad, and you can already draw some parallels to the way adult relationships manifest themselves.

Adult attachment

  • Researchers have found that the parent child relationships we experience appear to have an influence on the relationships we take on later in life. It should appear pretty obvious what securely versus insecurely attached partners would look like, but how did researchers come to this conclusion? Certainly they couldn’t just try the strange situation task on adults? Well not exactly…
  • Fraley and Shaver (1998) – yes this citation was important enough to note!!!! – conducted a really cool study in airports of all places. The famous airport study looked at couples that were about to be separating. Using an adult attachment questionnaire, they were able to use independent coders to note the behaviors couples would engage in when they separated. For example, some couples would hug briefly, some would massage or touch one another, some would kiss, some would cry. In fact, none of these behaviors seem outlandish at all, and you can read the article for yourself here http://faculty.sjcny.edu/~treboux/documents/airportseparations.pdf
  • The authors concluded that adult attachment and infant attachment can be organized in basically the same manner. 
  • Wait… how is that possible? Infant’s prefrontal cortex activity is excessively immature and their hippocampus is effectively non-active for the first few years of life. The hippocampus is our explicit memory. The memories we can recall and view like a T.V. show that has been recorded. Attachment behaviors are occurring in both infants and adults through something else then? you guessed it!!!  BASAL GANGLIA!!!!!

Attachment and your basal ganglia

  • The basal ganglia facilitates your procedural memory (implicit memory) and it allows you to store information about associations. At birth, the parent/child association is facilitated by the secretion of oxytocin. Oxytocin starts to be released when exposed to attachment figures. These figures become associated with security and comfort. These associations are actually learned behaviorally, however behaviorism missed the key components of hormones interacting with this parent/infant interaction

Love, love, love 

  • So this finally brings us back to the point of this post. What is love? It’s adult attachment and some suggest it exists completely implicitly. Any thoughts we have about our partner get muddled by justifications and cognitive dissonance. What really makes a relationship last is OXYTOCIN!!! Ok, that’s sort of a joke, but healthy signs of attachment should be more apparent in a good relationship. If you do not care that your partner is gone, or you are excessively clingy because you fear they will leave, etc… these are example of insecure attachment. Sometimes our partners lead us to act this way, such as they put so much pressure on us they make it hard to attach, so we become avoidant. Other times, we are causing the issues ourselves.
  • So what do we do? Adults under the influence of our implicit memories are making decisions as if we have 100% control over our impulses. Clearly we don’t, and we need to accept it. What is certain is that life long attachment is possible. This doesn’t exactly mean happiness, of course.
  • Finally, love… passionate love, may only exist for brief moments in our lives. It is our hope that this passionate relationship lays the foundation for secure attachment with a partner. The combination of these two processes is, ladies in gentleman, LOVE. 


  1. Gina says:

    Some version of this post (together with bits from your post on dual process memory) would make a great article for my Web site. Would you take a look at my submission page and see whether you might be interested in contributing occasionally? Many thanks! http://www.mom-psych.com/Contributors/Submission-Policy.html

    • Gina,

      I have just recently relocated from Texas to Colorado and have not had much of any time to post or manage my blog. I hope to start posting again soon enough. I will read over the page again and let you know.


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