Love vs. Lust: Are Sex and Love the Same Thing?

Couple holding hands on stone stairsIt is love or is it lust? Many have asked this question at some point, struggling to make a distinction between the two. According to recent science, the answer lies in the eyes.

“The eyes are the windows to the soul” is a popular phrase, and science has revealed the truth of this poetic line. Researchers have found eye movement alone can distinguish the feelings of love from lust.

Love or Lust: The Eyes Tell All

During a study by University of Chicago researchers, participants’ eye patterns were monitored while looking at a stranger’s photo. According to the results, a person who sees someone as a potential romantic partner would look at the person’s face, whereas a person who is feeling lust or sexual desire is more likely to look at the person’s body.

Other scientific studies have shown the brain regions involved in feelings of love are different from those involved in feelings of lust. Eye movement data proved different eye movements occur when a person views a photo of romantic love, such as a picture of a couple holding hands, versus a photo of an attractive person.

The Neurophysiology of Love and Lust

Though love and lust are interrelated, they are coordinated by different emotional systems and neural processes in the brain. Lust is ruled by the sex drive, which is processed in the endocrine and reproductive system, driven by testosterone and estrogen.

Physical attraction plays a role in feelings of lust and falling in love. Attraction is driven by the reproductive instinct and is subject to hormonal reactions as well as the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine.

After someone has fallen in passionate love, the initial excitement and passion may fade over time as the dopamine levels associated with novelty begin to level out. At this point, the love may grow into companionate love. This type of love is associated with bonding hormones, such as oxytocin and vasopressin.

Distinguishing Between Lust and Love

Although science indicates love and lust are distinct even on a physiological and neurological level, it may not make distinguishing between the two any easier for those under the charms of lust and romantic love. Differentiating between the two can be a challenge, as the feelings often occur simultaneously and both have the ability to cloud judgment. So how can you tell the difference?

Lust is purely physical attraction. It is an altered state of consciousness biologically driven by the instinct to procreate. It can be incredibly powerful and can at times surpass logic and reason. Lust is initiated by pheromones, chemicals secreted in sweat that reveal information about genetics and influence behavior. When you experience physical attraction and sexual desire for another, it is the result of bodily awareness of a good genetic match for creating offspring. Lust knows nothing about long-term compatibility or companionship.

Love is also an attraction, but it goes beyond a physiological impulse. Love is not immediate; rather, it grows over time. When you meet someone you fall in love with, it may start out as lust and grow into infatuation, which is what we commonly associate with romantic love.

Love is also an attraction, but it goes beyond a physiological impulse. Love is not immediate, but rather grows over time.When you become infatuated with another, you may begin to see through rose-colored glasses, putting the person on a pedestal and ignoring any flaws. Infatuation can become obsessive, leading someone to experience the “can’t eat, can’t sleep” phenomenon often associated with falling in love.

Scientific studies have shown the brain in love looks a lot like the brain on cocaine, with high dopamine levels and lowered serotonin. Eventually, the exciting feelings fade as the novelty of the relationship wears off and you are no longer under the lover’s haze. It is often at this stage when people begin to see their partner clearly without projections, and flaws start to become apparent. Lovers either realize they are not compatible and part shortly after infatuation fades or they commit to the relationship and develop companionate love for one another.

Lust and infatuation require little commitment or effort, whereas love generally requires a high degree of both. A successful loving relationship requires honesty, communication, compassion, respect, and trust. Love is most often built on a strong mutual foundation. Love usually involves personal sacrifice. When you’re in love, you shift from “me-thinking” to “we-thinking.” It is the willingness to consider another’s well-being in the same way you would your own.


  1. Blair, L. (2010, July 14). Mistaking lust for love. The Guardian. Retrieved from
  2. Fisher, H. E. (2000, January 1). Brains do it: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment. The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from
  3. Ingmire, J. (2014, July 17). Eye movements reveal difference between love and lust. UChicago News. Retrieved from
  4. Lahat, I. (2014, July 9). The Brain Looks the Same When We’re in Love or High on Cocaine. Business Insider. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Joan

    April 13th, 2016 at 11:30 AM

    No they are in no way the same thing.
    I have been with a lot of people sexually in my life but I can honestly say that I only loved a handful of them. I don’t think that I am alone in that assessment if people are truly honest with themselves.

  • annie

    April 13th, 2016 at 4:46 PM

    But it is also natural to lust after the one person in your life that you are in love with

  • Claire

    April 14th, 2016 at 7:56 AM

    At first I was attracted physically to my husband, I mean that is what first drew me to him, was that kind of initial attraction. But as time passed and I feel in love with him I found that I came to love him even more the longer that we were together. I think that this is probably true with a lot of relationships, that they begin one way but then they can evolve into something even deeper and more emotional. I think that those things alone show that you are meant to be together.

  • stephen

    April 15th, 2016 at 8:01 AM

    Of course the eyes wander when it is lust.
    YOu don’t care one thing about the soul if you are not in love, you are looking for one thing and one thing only and so generally this will not include having to look deep into their eyes.

  • JenniferLee

    April 15th, 2016 at 1:26 PM

    I think that once you meet the person who is right for you then you will know it. Those feelings may start one way but they will begin to change and you will learn that you would so much rather be with this person than you would to be without them.
    That is how you will start to see what the meaning of true love is.
    If you can’t imagine having one day go by without having them in your life, then it could be a whole lot more than just lusting for them.

  • Carollyne J.

    April 15th, 2016 at 5:35 PM

    Good article. Having being sexually molested by several men as a child I am unable to love it is just lust which I am extremely embarrassed and ashamed about. Bury able to change it

  • beth

    April 16th, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    For most of us it is all about timing and determining where we are in life and what we are looking for at that point in time. I don’t think that there is necessarily going to be the right thing for everyone all at the same time so what would be great would be if you could find someone who is also looking for the same things in life that you are, and hopefully at the very same time.

  • Paige

    April 19th, 2016 at 3:37 PM

    There will always come a time for most of us where we become blinded, and the two become almost impossible to distinguish from one another. There will be those relationships that you assume are built on one thing and you don’t even realize that no they aren’t until they are over and you have moved on to a healthier and more meaningful relationship.
    But that doesn’t change the fact that at that time in your life you were pretty convinced that this is what it was. That is what learning and growing older is all about.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.