Yours to hold, in love or lust

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, one can evolve into the other. No, it is not inevitable.

Ever wonder what it is that makes us fall head over heels in love with a special someone, wanting to settle down and build a life together? And what about lusting after the stunning woman across the room, wanting to take her home and have your way with her? You may assume that these are two sides of the same coin, but neurologically speaking, they are more easily able to change from one to the other than you think.

In 2012 there was a study that explored which parts of the brain are activated when people were in love and lust. As it turns out, passionate love increases activities in the areas that deal with complex emotional and cognitive processing (like body image, attention, etc). Yet, S & J Cacioppo say that passionate love also sparks the locations in the brain that deal with ‘basic emotions, euphoria, reward, and motivation’ – which are areas that are associated with your more lustful – primitive – thoughts.

So what’s the difference between love and lust then? We all may have our own understating of what these are and how they differ, but for the sake of science, let’s go with generally agreed upon definitions. Passionate love, or what we feel when we fall in love, is a state of emotional attachment that drives you towards growing together with a significant other(s).

Lust, on the other hand, is about chasing and satisfying short-term sexual desire without any follow-ups, dinner dates, and the ‘let’s chat about your family/life/future’ stuff attached.

Sometimes you want to settle down with someone, sometimes you just want sex. It’s a physical response to someone. We want to respond to them. Our minds work according to a reward system that functions in an almost Pavlovian way. In their 2012 study, Pfaus, professor of psychology at Concordia University, and his researchers found that this system is based on desire and reward and can serve to increase (or decrease) sexual responses to others. You lust after a hot woman, you flirt with her, you may have a fun sexual experience. This triggers the desire and reward parts in our brains.

‘Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded,’ Pfaus explains. This explains why you tend to feel closer to someone after a sexual encounter: your brain is just responding the way it’s supposed to.

But it goes deeper than that; what we first encounter on the road to our sexual selves influences us more than we are aware. This desire and reward situation is directly related to our earlier sexual experiences that created a map to guide us on our future dalliances. Next time you find yourself lusting after someone, it may very well have been triggered by something from the past, maybe something as simple as a smell you associate with the early days of a first love.

Now, what does this mean for you when you think your lust for the beautiful woman you had an amazing night, or a few nights with, is turning into something more?

It means that your brain (and body) is responding positively to the sexual stimulus you have received. Your mind is triggering all several processes where lust lives as a complex biochemical and neurological reaction. Essentially, these processes overlap with some of those that make us feel passionate, ever-after love.

In a nutshell, as Cacioppo says, ‘love grows out of and is a more abstract representation of the pleasant experiences that characterise’ lust.

Lust can slide into love. Which might leave you teetering the line between ‘do I want her for a couple of nights?’ and ‘do I want her for longer?’. That all depends on you and her. Do you want to follow it up? Are you feeling all couply? Take a physical step back and see if those feelings remain, and if they do, there’s nothing stopping you from asking her out on a proper date. You know, mix up that lust and love a little bit more.


Cacioppo, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Frum, C., Pfaus, JG., and Lewis, JW., 2012. The Common Neural Bases Between Sexual Desire and Love: A Multilevel Kernel Density fMRI Analysis. In International Society for Sexual Medicine. Available here: DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02651.x

Pfause, JG., Kippin, TE., Coria-Avila, GA., ‘le’ne Gelez, He, Afonso, V., Ismail, N., & Parada, M., 2012. Who, What, Where, When (and Maybe Even Why)? How the Experience of Sexual Reward Connects Sexual Desire, Preference, and Performance. In Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41:31–62. Available here: DOI 10.1007/s10508-012-9935-5.

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