Relationships

Your Brain On Lust Is Completely Different From Your Brain On Love

By Meghan Dillon··  6 min read
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Have you ever made a bad decision when you thought you were in love? Chances are you may not really have been in love…it could have been lust you were experiencing instead.

Lust? Love? What’s the difference? It’s somewhat easy to confuse them because they overlap. Lust is a strong sexual desire for another person – but nothing more. Love, on the other hand, encompasses sexual desire and attraction, but goes beyond. When you love someone, you want what’s best for them and act accordingly. In other words, lust is about what sexual pleasure that person can provide you, whereas love is about what you can do to care for the other person, mind, body, and soul. 

Interestingly, research shows that your brain on lust is completely different from your brain on love.

The Science of Lust vs. Love

It can be easy to confuse lust for love early in a relationship, and it’s important to know that your brain reacts differently when you’re experiencing lust versus when you’re in love. What makes it even more confusing is that scientists divide love into three phases: lust, attraction, and attachment. In short, love often starts with lust, so how do we know the difference between the two?

Lust is based mainly on physical attraction, which is why your brain releases sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen when you’re attracted to someone, in a biological push to increase your libido to reproduce and pass on your genes. 

Lust is primarily physical attraction, and your brain releases sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen.

When the next phase, attraction, comes into play, your brain also releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine: “Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus, is a particularly well-publicized player in the brain’s reward pathway – it’s released when we do things that feel good to us. In this case, these things include spending time with loved ones and having sex. High levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric, even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia – which means you actually can be so ‘in love’ that you can’t eat and can’t sleep.”

Unfortunately, the rise of dopamine and norepinephrine triggers cortisol, which in turn can decrease levels of serotonin (known as the happy hormone), which can mess with your mood, appetite, and judgment.

When we move into the attachment phase of love – where long-term pair bonding happens – the dominant hormones are vasopressin and oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that’s present during orgasm, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Basically, our brains are more stable when we’re in love than when we’re in lust.

You’re More Likely To Make Bad Decisions in Lust

Not only are the hormones different in love and lust, but our orientation is too – love is other-oriented (how you care about and do what’s good for the other person) while lust is self-oriented (fulfilling your own sexual desires). I like how Dan Scotti of Elite Daily puts it: “Unlike love, however, lust requires no ‘chemical state of mind,’ or even a special connection with someone else, for that matter. Lust is primal; love is romantic.”

That primal urge can blind us, and the decrease in serotonin can affect your sense of judgment, leading you to make poor decisions, which doesn’t help either. When I was in college, I defended a guy I was hanging out with who conveniently forgot to mention that he had a girlfriend back home. I defended him because I thought I was falling in love, but in reality, I let my strong physical attraction to him cloud my judgment and morals. 

A more significant example of a destructive decision made in lust is cheating. In 2019, Cosmopolitan published an anonymous personal essay about a woman who was cheating on her husband because he wasn’t fulfilling her sexual needs. She said, “I know it’s wrong, but it’s the best sex of my life.” 

The woman went on to talk about how she doesn’t want to leave her husband because he’s a good father to their children, but she doesn’t want to compromise her own sexual gratification either. This comes across as a way to justify her infidelity, which she doesn’t seem to realize is completely selfish. She’s not thinking about her husband, her children, or even the man she’s having an affair with. It’s all about her and her sexual pleasure, and she refuses to acknowledge how this can hurt the people she supposedly loves. It’s no coincidence that cheating and lust go hand-in-hand.

Lust is an inherently selfish emotion, making decisions made in lust inherently selfish ones.

Another example of bad decisions made in lust can be seen in the most recent season finale of The Bachelor. Leading man Clayton Echard told three women he loved them, had sex with two of them (Rachel Recchia and Gabby Windey), and ended up with the woman who wasn’t comfortable being intimate with him yet (Susie Evans). It was clear to anyone watching that Clayton wasn’t in love with the two other women but in lust, which he seemingly confirmed in a post-show interview on the Here For The Right Reasons podcast. 

Clayton said, “Looking back at it all — in those moments, I believed it. I really did believe I was in love with them when I was there, on the show. But as I've now taken the time to reflect and look back, I believe that I got to the point where I was falling in love with everybody, but then it got to the point where I was only in love with Susie.”

I’d argue that he told Rachel and Gabby he loved them to manipulate them into having sex with him, and he definitely wasn’t in love with either of them. Can you fall in love with three women at the same time? I highly doubt it. Ultimately, his lust resulted in hurting both women on national television. 

Closing Thoughts

Lust is an inherently selfish emotion, making decisions made in lust inherently selfish ones. From mistakes we’ll make while thinking we’re in love that we’ll laugh at in a few years to life-altering decisions like cheating on your spouse, decisions made in lust can be destructive. 

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