Home All The Brain Does Not Love, Humans Do: Positive Psychology and the Brain

The Brain Does Not Love, Humans Do: Positive Psychology and the Brain

written by Theodore C.K. Cheung 20 April 2010

Theodore C.K. Cheung, MSSc (Clin Psy), MSc (Cog Neuropsy), is a clinical psychologist based in Hong Kong. Currently he is covering more than 30 schools (elementary, high, and special) for a major charity organization responsible for well-being promotion and interventions in both individual and policy levels. He received clinical training in Hong Kong (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) and also got neuropsychology training in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London) attaching to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

Contact Theodore. His articles are here.

Note from Timothy T.C. So, PPND author and Associate Editor of the Chinese PPND:  “I am more than grateful to introduce Theodore Cheung, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, to share his view on positive psychology and neuropsychology.”

Forty years ago, it would have been a dream to talk about tapping emotions in the brain. At that time, behaviorism ruled and cognitive psychology and humanistic psychology had barely emerged onto the landscape.  Plus, neuroimaging techniques were still in their infancy. Studying brain and behavior is almost equivalent to studying patients with various types of brain disorders such as amnesia, aphasia, and executive dysfunctions (people’s brains instead of the animals in Skinner’s boxes). Thanks to the decades of sweat and sleepless nights by devoted scientists all over the globe, we now start to have some solid data to talk about functioning of the last human mystery. And we have tools available to study the first pillar of positive psychology as described by Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness–Positive Emotions.

??1Can Emotions Be Measured Physiologically?

Yes, and it’s not as difficult as you may imagine. Your head is cleaned by sterilizer.  Each side of your head is connected to an electrode which in turns to an amplifier. You stay at rest for five minutes. The ratio of the strength of signals from both sides of your brain is then computed. And it’s done!

Davidson and his team (2004; Urry et al, 2004) from Wisconsin using electroencephalography (EEG) found that the EEG score reliably and specifically predicts how well you feel, how well your hormonal system works, and your vulnerability to developing clinical anxiety and depression.

If you find yourself having an optimistic thought, your brain is likely to show higher levels of left than right prefrontal activation at rest, and you are likely better at regulating negative emotion.

No, I’m Not Convinced Yet. How about Love and Other Virtues?

While attending “Romeo and Juliet” performed by the Royal Ballet in London, I had the same doubt as well. How is it possible to capture love, the very essence of humanity, by all those nodes and scans?



In the same city, Bartels and Zeki from University College London tackled this so cleverly with the use of neuroimaging technique (fMRI; functional magnetic resonance imaging). They compared the brain activation of a group of “truly, deeply and madly in love” participants when they saw pictures of their lovers versus friends. A unique pattern was revealed: when people had lovers in their eyes, activation of cortical and subcortical structures was closely related to the reward network (especially excitement and pleasure), and deactivation of other cortical structures was closely related to reasoning.

Studying human virtues was indeed infeasible two decades ago. Bartels and Zeki have now studied maternal love. Lieberman and Eisenberger as well as Panksepp have studied social pleasure. Related topics began to appear in top journals in recent years. Stay tuned for upcoming new findings.

The Brain Informs the Illness Model. Could It Also Benefit the Positive Model?

In 2008, Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, wrote a review article that became an instant classic in the field of psychiatry and clinical psychology. He expanded his cognitive theory of depression through the concept of depressive mode.  Mode is a state in which different systems can turn automatic when a genetically vulnerable individual is struck by a single or repeated negative life events. The automatic systems can include narrowing of attention, biased cognitive processing, and heated hormonal circulation, among others.  In other words, given repeated negative life events, a person can have physiological depression symptoms.

To positive psychologists, this may be an excellent template of theory development for positive emotions, strengths, and virtues. Namely, the widely cited Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotion (as described by Barbara Fredrickson in her book Positivity) proposes that frequent experience of positive emotions broadens cognitive processes and builds enduring coping resources.  The Broaden-and-Build Theory could be enriched by investigating the neurophysiological correlates of positive emotions. When we experience positive emotions, do we turn into a mode as well? Is this positive mode a state of flourishing? Is it diagonal or antagonistic to the depressive mode? What is then the underlying neurophysiological and hormonal equivalent?


For those who still have lingering thoughts about putting your partner in the scanning machine to see how you are loved, please bear in mind the limitations of the neuroimaging techniques. Neuroscience provides us a unique and precious window to investigate the complexity of human mind, but we need to constantly remind ourselves the risk of being a reductionist in attributing everything back into neurons. The brain does not love, but human do.



Bartels, A. & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport, 11, 3829-3834.

Bartels, A. & Zeki, S. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Neuroimage, 21, 1155-1166.

Beck, A. (2008). The evolution of the cognitive model of depression and its neurobiological correlates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 969-977.

Davidson, R. (2004). Well-being and affective style: Neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, London B, 359, 1395-1411.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Lieberman, M.D., & Eisenberger, N.I. (2009). Pains and pleasures of social life. Science, 323, 890-891.

Panksepp, J. (2003). Feeling the pain of social loss. Science, 302, 237-239.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.

Urry, H.L., Nitschke, J.B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D.C., Dalton, K.M., Mueller, C.J., et al. (2004). Making a life worth living: Neural correlates of well-being. Psychological Science, 15, 367-372.


This is my brain courtesy of Killermonkeys
Kissing courtesy of Theodore C.K. Cheung

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


JM @ Calgary Psychologist 21 April 2010 - 12:17 am

Very interesting post, Theodore. Thanks for posting this! Neuropsychology , in a way, bridge the gap between hard science (e.g. biology) and social science such as psychology. It’s allows psychologist to explain the behavior of a person which is backed up physiological evidence.

I really liked the question you raised regarding turning positive emotions into a mode. The Broad-and-build theory only focuses on short-term effects of positive emotions. It’s interesting to see if repeated exposure of positive emotions have a profound effect on our cognitive schemas.

Warren Davies 24 April 2010 - 6:08 am

“The brain does not love, but human do.”

Try removing someone’s brain and see if they can still love! Just kidding, I know you don’t mean that literally, but it really is the brain that loves. Everything that we feel, perceive, and experience happens because of our brains. You can say there’s more to love than neuroscience can currently tell us, and that is of course true. But today’s mystery is tomorrow’s fact.

In my opinion though, understanding how love ‘works’ in the brain would not change anything about the experience of it. Like Helen Fisher said, you can know the ingredients of chocolate cake but it still tastes good.

Senia 24 April 2010 - 2:39 pm


What a great and accurate comment!!! Of course.

And how fun to read!
And I think you answer your own first sentence with this sentence: “In my opinion though, understanding how love ‘works’ in the brain would not change anything about the experience of it.”

I agree with you – I love the research in this area, and I also believe that behavioral understandings of how people are often do the job – do a good enough job of explaining how people are.


Warren Davies 26 April 2010 - 1:12 pm


“What a great and accurate comment!!!”

Well, you know yours wasn’t so bad either!

I actually find that the more I understand how something works, the more interesting it becomes to me. I don’t think it takes the magic out of love to know how it works. Or other things either. How much better is it to know that stars are like our sun but impossibly far away, billions of them, maybe with planets and life around them too? Much better than “eyes of the Gods” or any other made up supernatural explanation you want to make!



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com