“To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage,” wrote the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in the 7th century B.C. Neuroscience is proving the accuracy of these words by the father of Taoism, and it is even showing how love can heal a wounded spirit.
It was once thought that most of what we will ever learn in life happens over the first seven years, and that childhood trauma can leave permanent scars, but now we know that is not always the case. Although negativity bias, as psychologists call it, can persist, deliberate effort and the support of loving relationships can positively rewire the brain.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” says: “There’s a well-known saying: Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Negative thoughts lead to, no surprise, negative outcomes, but the opposite is true too. Dale Carnegie may have been onto something with his books on the power of positive thinking. Cortisol, the stress hormone, and negativity’s best friend, controls our fight or flight response.
It’s released during times of pain or fear, one of the brain’s most primitive reactions. A little is helpful, especially when you need to make quick decisions, but too much can lead to anxiety. Instead, the part of the brain you need to develop for good to keep coming into your life is the prefrontal cortex, which heightens feelings of calm and satisfaction. Counseling with a good psychologist helps, particularly when going through stressful situations, but so do practices like meditation, listening to uplifting music, and deliberately maintaining a positive outlook.
You may wonder how to make time for it all, but it is within a successful, loving partnership that your brain, and with it your life and health, can really transform. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says: “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom, point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of positive attributes in our lives.”
But to not anticipate stormy weather is to be a fool — all relationships do have their ups and downs, after all. Love activates the same reptilian sectors of the brain as addiction, and the production of dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
Dopamine is the ecstasy hormone while adrenaline and norepinephrine create energy and despair. Dr. Helen Fisher, whose TED talk “The Brain in Love” has been watched by over 3 million people, says “Love stimulates activity in the ventral tegmental area at the very center of the brain and that stretches its influence across the brain.” Therefore, love is found a little below the cognitive thinking area of the brain, in the caudate nucleus, an area focused on desire. However, it is also the zone of the brain tasked with calculating gains and losses.
New love also makes you a little extreme, and for that too, neuroscience has an answer. Love lowers serotonin levels, which is common in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. We become ecstatic and may make wild promises, but how long do they last?
“I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells, dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees,” writes Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda.
But in another poem, Neruda wrote, “Tonight I write the saddest lines,” about a love lost, because love is the ultimate bearer of joy and pain, truth and lies. Added to the complex range of emotions love inspires is built-in insecurity.
While we may in time learn from our mistakes, oftentimes the heartache remains. Our lover may sing our praises but a single criticism may be the words we remember best. Get that insecurity into perspective. It’s one of the most primitive of human responses, when we were hunter-gatherers it helped us remember that which was unsafe.
But now that we’re mostly urban 21st-century Tweeters, what is more productive is to focus on the positive because that is the best predictor of a love that will last — and to do that we need to activate a highly sophisticated area of the brain known as the ventral pallidum, which we could call the commitment zone.
Marriage research specialist Ted Huston has studied marriages for three decades and found that those who idealize each other have happier unions. Such idealization occurs when the ventral pallidum is activated. It is essential to creating the bonds that allow couples to stay together and eventually raise a family.
So while passion subsides, what develops is a growth in bonding, according to studies conducted at Stony Brook University. Cravings diminish as those destabilizing shots of adrenaline and norepinephrine decline and are replaced with the confidence of our mutual commitment with soothing waves of oxytocin and vasopressin.
But it would be to deny human experience if it was suggested that all is plain sailing in love, not even greeting card makers suggest that. Vivian Gornick, who wrote “The End of the Novel of Love,” takes it a step further: “We love once, and we loved badly. We loved again, and again we loved badly. We did it a third time, and we were no longer living in a world free of experience. We saw that love did not make us tender, wise, or compassionate. Under its influence we gave up neither our fears nor our angers. Within ourselves we remained unchanged … Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness.”
And that’s the point; until you consciously focus on unlearning negative patterns, they’re going to remain hardwired into your brain. You can change. Indeed, you should if your relationship scorecard looks like it’s been used for target practice.
UCLA neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger has shown that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, which hugs the corpus callosum, lights up in exactly the same way when a person feels rejected as if they were experiencing a physical assault. Someone describing a betrayal as a “punch in the gut,” is in fact providing a neurologically accurate description.
Yet even more neuroscience has found that a person in a loving relationship can endure intense physical pain if their partner is near, which is why for years labor wards have encouraged men to remain with their wives while the women give birth. “People in love for the long-term show activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked with ‘positive illusion’ — the ability to overlook cons and focus on pros,” says Fisher. That doesn’t mean to overlook obvious problems that need to be addressed, however. It’s all in how you address them.
And learning how to raise issues before they become problems is worth it. Decades of marriage counseling research show that those who “never argue” are more likely to divorce. It’s important to express yourself in a manner that does not diminish your partner (and sabotage the relationship). Without that, caustic disillusionment sets in, affection flees, and general discontent and apathy quickly follow.
And love, as the Taj Mahal and other monuments prove, can remind us of its power over ages and even across the cosmos. Voyager 1 is in “interstellar space” and Voyager 2 is currently in the “heliosheath” — the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. Launched in the late 1970s, their cargo includes the brain waves of a young woman newly in love, Ann Druyan, who became the wife of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan. He led the Voyager Golden Record project to introduce the people of Earth to any beings that spacecrafts might encounter, if we find life elsewhere in the universe. What does the brain in love sound like? Perhaps we should have guessed. It sounds like fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.