The Love Revolution: How A New Brain-Centered Therapy May Save Relationships

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

Is there any topic that baffles the human condition more than love? And yet, how much do we really understand about its fundamental components? The general consensus, going all the way back to antiquity, has been that love is a mystery, both inexplicable and incomprehensible to the human mind.

It is something we all seek out and aspire to, regardless of how much pain the search may cause us. But forget those dated clichés for just a moment. Because today, with the help of a science that focuses specifically on how to maintain a stable and secure relationship, experts in the field are now almost certain that love is a basic survival code that has been hardwired into our brains over the course of thousands of years, a symbiotic relationship that kept us safe from predators while perpetuating the species and ensuring survival.

Of course, even eons of human evolution didn’t prepare us for a rapidly changing economy, which would further complicate the nature of human relationships. The way in which we find romantic partners, the courtship ritual, and even the longevity of romantic relationships are now subject to economics and technologies that simply refuse to slow down and wait for us. As divorces became more prevalent in modern society, couples wishing to get their relationship back on track went to counseling sessions. At one time, talk was the only option on the table. But over the last 15 years, relationship studies have advanced exponentially, seeing the rise of a new systematic treatment known as “emotionally focused therapy” (EFT). It attempts to repair the bonds that erode over time with couples, helping them to deal with their emotions rather than having the couples talk about incidents that may have led to emotional discord within the relationship. Instead of finding faults about each other, the emphasis is on how they deal with disagreements and bad news.

EFT is now being hailed as the most successful approach to healing fractured relationships between dissatisfied couples. It has a 70 to 75 percent success rate, and is being taught to practicing therapists in 25 countries around the world. With the advent of functional MRI (fMRI), a procedure using MRI technology that measures associated changes in blood flow to the brain, clinical psychologists and relationship councilors can now analyze people’s neural patterns in real time. After monitoring these brain patterns they can then compare the results to data collected during the therapy sessions.

James Coan from the University of Virginia put several happily married women, separately, into these fMRI machines. He then took pictures of their brains as they witnessed tiny circles and x’s flashing before their eyes. These women were then told that when they saw the x’s, there was a 20 percent chance they would receive an electric shock to their ankles. The women sometimes faced the shock alone. Other times a stranger came into the room and held their hand. And finally the women faced the shock with their husbands clasping their hand. When the x’s showed up in front of their eyes when the women were alone, their brain patterns lit up with an alarming rate and panic set in. But when the stranger clasped their hand, they reacted with less alarm. However, when their husbands gripped their hand, they barely even noticed the shocks and their brain patterns were very calm.

These subjects all had another variable in common: they had received EFT prior to the experiment. For those who had not received EFT, clasping their husband’s hand had little or no effect. Thus in an insecure and unstable marriage, the spouse was not a safety cue. Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the leading global figures in EFT, explains the results of this experiment: “What the fMRI allows us to do is to look at the physiology that is going on,” she says. “It can help us look at peoples’ brains and how they are reacting to things.”

According to Naomi Eisenberger of the University of California: “If you look at people’s brains, it becomes obvious that we process rejection from someone we depend on, in the same way we process physical pain. This is because we are social animals and we depend on people so much. Rejection is a big danger cue. By looking at fMRI machines we are learning how powerful these social cues are, in terms of pain or even with positive changes.”

The two pioneers of EFT are the British psychiatrist John Bowlby and Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychobiologist from Estonia. Bowlby’s main contribution to relationship studies was a theory proposing that adult romantic love is an attachment bond just like the one that exists between a mother and her child. In his work — which consisted of countless experiments over many years analyzing how babies reacted to their mother’s leaving the room — Bowlby came to the conclusion that we are designed as humans to love only a few people with whom we can securely bond for life. He believed that this is nature’s plan for the survival of our species. If sex impels us to mate, Bowlby argued that love is what assures our existence.

Panksepp, meanwhile, came to his conclusions about the danger cues resulting from suddenly losing a loved one by analyzing the brains of lab rats. His work revealed that rats that bond with their mates and rear their young together have a specific neural pathway in their amygdala (the soft nuclei located in the temporal lobes in the brain that process memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions). The pathway switches on automatically when a loved one is suddenly perceived by the brain as unavailable.

Panksepp referred to this separation as “primal panic.” Since rats are mammals, Panksepp felt that this panic could occur in humans too. In this fearful state, muscles tense up, stress hormones are released as blood flow increases in the body, thoughts of pain and other harm arise, and the impulse to freeze or flee forms in our minds. The elements of this experience are hard wired into our brains and are inescapable, he says.

“Isolation and lack of response from another human being who we love is incredibly confusing and disorientating. We have a hugely difficult time with it as a species. Once we have come to depend on somebody, that lack of contact really is a trigger for fear and panic. At a simple evolutionary level, isolation is coded in our brains as dangerous,” says Johnson. The good news is that for those who are willing to talk openly about their relationship difficulties, and be ready to go under an fMRI machine, these common problems, which begin in the brain, can be worked out.

“People don’t fall in and out of love,” says Johnson, speaking about why she believes most relationships can come back from the brink of disaster. “It’s a funny metaphor. We talk about it as if it’s a mystery. We don’t fall anywhere. Most people just don’t understand the process.” In short, the secret to EFT is just a matter of increasing love — that is, the chemical cocktail inside the brain responsible for creating this emotion. The most common of these hormones is called oxytocin. It’s released during an orgasm, but even by simply touching our partner or thinking about them, a little dose of this hormone communicates with our brain and nervous system.

Perhaps this is the reason why, when you’re in love, you want to tell the whole world. The more love hormones we possess in our brain, the more our relationships are likely to survive. In mammals that have to stay together and cooperate to rear young with each other, these bonding hormones turn off fear. Essentially, they make people more orientated and trustworthy towards other human beings. They also affect the habituation sites in our brains. One of their effects, for example, is that the hormones allow us to make love to one partner, again and again, without that process becoming boring, but rather to keep it moving in a fulfilling cycle.

According to Johnson, this practice really displays how connected our bodies are to our brains. And she can’t stress enough, she says, how important this connection is to maintaining a healthy, loving, stable, and long lasting relationship. Besides relationships, the benefits may extend further, with applications that are also valid for helping families, allowing therapists to be impartial to all sides of the argument when people speak. Notably, the EFT method also works well for survivors of trauma. “The fact that we have hormones like oxytocin, or that I can put someone into an fMRI machine and affect the way someone has bonded, all points out that our neural architecture reflects and defines who we are. And it also shows that we are bonding animals.”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


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