Imagine holding a flower in your hand and picking off the petals one by one — you love him, you love him not, you love him, you love him not, you love him… and then suddenly, you hate him! As it turns out, it is not uncommon to feel both love and hate almost simultaneously.
While these polar emotions seem to be opposites, they are actually quite correlated. Science reveals that love and hate stem from some of the same parts of the brain, so it is not surprising that people often feel conflicted between both emotions. This fickle nature of the human mind can often be amplified if love and hate are directed toward another person to whom one is close.
In 2008, a study by Professor Semir Zeki of the University College of London that was published in the peer-reviewed, online science journal PLOS ONE, revealed that the emotions love and hate involve some of the same neural circuitry.
Zeki’s team performed brain scans of volunteers who saw pictures of people they had previously noted that they hated. The results showed that the parts of the brain that were activated during this experiment were the putamen and insula, which are also known to be areas of the brain activated by romantic love.
Zeki proposed that the putamen is involved in aggressive behavior in general, whether it is in a romantic or disgustful context. Surprisingly, though, other studies have revealed that parts of the cerebral cortex, associated with reasoning and judgment, become deactivated during love while they only become slightly deactivated during hate. That means, for the most part, the brain is still using its best judgment when you feel hatred!
Perhaps love and hate are managed by the same parts of the brain because they are both linked to our visceral drive to survive among others of our own species.
“Love and hate reflect social goals,” explained Art Markman, a UT psychology professor and Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts. “When you succeed at intense positive social goals, which could be family-oriented or they could be romantic or sexual, then you will experience intense positive feelings, which you interpret as love. When an individual stands in the way of your ability to achieve an important goal, this situation can trigger strong negative emotions that are directed at that person and are interpreted as hate.”
While Zeki’s study revealed that neural pathways link love and hate, it is unlikely that one would confuse one emotion for another.
“You won't really mistake love for hate,” Markman said. “However, the intensity of the emotional experience that you have around someone can sometimes flip rapidly between love and hate if you have conflicting goals related to them. So, if you have a former romantic partner who hurt you, you might hate that person, but then if you come into contact with them, you might also re-engage the positive goals you had with them and ignite feelings of love.”
However, feeling such capricious intensity can be tolerable, if it is controlled.
“Emotional experience is part of being human,” Markman continued. “On those days when you are feeling intense experiences, let yourself experience them. You can learn a lot about yourself both from intense joy and deep anger or sadness. That said, if you find that your normal state is to feel everything intensely, good and bad, then you might want some strategies for feeling things less intensely.”
Markman offered further advice on how to manage extreme emotions.
“A simple thing you can do is to create some psychological distance from the events that are causing the feelings,” Markman said. “If the strong feelings still persist, think about working with a counselor to give you more individualized strategies for helping you to manage the strength of your feelings.”