The researchers, Sandra Langeslag from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Jan van Strien from Erasmus University Rotterdam, examined 40 participants in what was “the very first study” of its kind, according to Langeslag. Each participant came armed with 30 photos of their current or former partner — half of the participants were in a relationship, while half had recently been through a breakup — and were instructed to try to regulate their love feelings by using the technique of “reappraisal” — viewing a slideshow of the images and focusing each time on a positive aspect of their beloved for “up-regulation,” or a negative aspect for “down-regulation.”
The results? Well, participants did indeed feel more love after up-regulation, and less love after down-regulation. What’s more, brainwave measurements showed this wasn’t just an illusion: The Late Positive Potential brainwave, which “indicates how emotionally salient a stimulus is for you,” was diminished after down-regulation and somewhat enhanced after up-regulation, says Langeslag.
This is not a new concept — psychologists stretching all the way back to Freud have thought that our mind may be able to control certain emotions. So it’s a little surprising that more research like this hasn’t already happened. The field of emotion regulation research, says Gross, has tended to concentrate on strategies to regulate negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, without much prior research on how to regulate positive emotions like love. Besides which, the members of Foreigner are not the only ones unsure of what love is. Many psychologists refer to love not so much as an emotion itself, but instead a motivational state to a variety of emotions such as happiness, or perhaps jealousy. Love is not obviously a “pure” or “basic” emotion, says Gross. “I think we can be pretty confident that there’s something moving around,” he says, “but we can’t yet be sure that it’s really love.”