How Love Builds Your Brain

Okay, here’s something positive about brain research. In fact, this piece from the New York Times Opinionator blog waxes lyrical on the subject, with good reason since it describes the brain’s response to love (and the withdrawal of it) throughout our lives. The information comes from the science of interpersonal neurobiology.

It starts — or at least begins in a new way — at birth, reports Diane Ackerman, in the intimate bond between the infant and mother.

Brain scans show synchrony between the brains of mother and child; but what they can’t show is the internal bond that belongs to neither alone, a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn’t matter whose body is whose. Wordlessly, relying on the heart’s semaphores, the mother says all an infant needs to hear, communicating through eyes, face and voice. Thanks to advances in neuroimaging, we now have evidence that a baby’s first attachments imprint its brain. The patterns of a lifetime’s behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin in this crucible.

This “neural alchemy” continues throughout life in every important relationship. The sense of feeling loved and cared for shapes the brain and the brain in turn shapes our relationships. (Obviously the sense of not being loved also makes its mark.) Loving relationships contribute to longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom.

“Choosing a mate” comes nearest to the experience of infancy:

When two people become a couple, the brain extends its idea of self to include the other; instead of the slender pronoun “I,” a plural self emerges who can borrow some of the other’s assets and strengths. The brain knows who we are. The immune system knows who we’re not, and it stores pieces of invaders as memory aids. Through lovemaking, or when we pass along a flu or a cold sore, we trade bits of identity with loved ones, and in time we become a sort of chimera. We don’t just get under a mate’s skin, we absorb him or her.

It’s worth interpolating here that, according to the neurobiologists, even casual sexual intimacy leaves some “bits of identity” in the other, stimulating attachment hormones that also revamp the brain. For women in particular, I suppose, it has something to do with the desire or will to have a loving relationship and not just the physical process.

“Troubled relationships” do not have the same protective effect as a healthy one.

If you’re in a healthy relationship, holding your partner’s hand is enough to subdue your blood pressure, ease your response to stress, improve your health and soften physical pain. We alter one another’s physiology and neural functions.

So far the article has only referred to “relationships” and “couples”. What about marriage? How good is that for your brain and your health? Thankfully there is some research on that.

While they were both in the psychology department of Stony Brook University, Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron scanned the brains of long-married couples who described themselves as still “madly in love.” Staring at a picture of a spouse lit up their reward centers as expected; the same happened with those newly in love (and also with cocaine users). But, in contrast to new sweethearts and cocaine addicts, long-married couples displayed calm in sites associated with fear and anxiety. Also, in the opiate-rich sites linked to pleasure and pain relief, and those affiliated with maternal love, the home fires glowed brightly.

A happy marriage relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby. Small wonder “Baby” is a favorite adult endearment. Not that romantic love is an exact copy of the infant bond. One needn’t consciously regard a lover as momlike to profit from the parallels. The body remembers, the brain recycles and restages.

And it’s not all subconscious or implicit. Couples can set out the “rewire their brains on purpose” where bad habits have set in. A deliberate effort to lavish affection on her husband as well as “schooling” him helped the author’s husband recover the ability to talk and write after a stroke, and even to see better.

Well, I don’t know whether that tells us anything new about the ways of love, but it’s still pretty interesting.

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Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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