The Brain On Love, or “It’s Relatively Easy to Find Someone Who’ll Say ‘I Love You’—It’s Much Harder to Find Someone Who Actually Will Do So”

(This is my abridgment of a March 24, 2012 article in the NYTimes. The original article can be found here . I have highlighted and bold-printed what I thought was really interesting about the article and added my own parentheticals.)

The Brain on Love”— by Diane Ackerman

March 24, 2012, 4:28 pm

A RELATIVELY new field called interpersonal neurobiology draws its vigor from one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. (Consciously choosing a few key concepts and values and ideals/principles—ideals and concepts such as Love, growth, peace, emotional maturity, mindfulness, God, the Dharma, the 12 Steps, doing unto others as we would want done unto us, et cetera—to pay deep attention to and to write and write about and contemplate and reflect on and study is a great way of organizing and defining ourselves. To not orbit our lives around a few key concepts and ideals is to live lost, adrift, without any real sense of purpose or direction. It’s the essence of being “just another troubled guest on the dark earth,” as Goethe put it.)  How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.

All relationships change the brain — but most important of all are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.

At birth, the brain starts blazing new neural pathways. An infant is steeped in alien sensations—bright, buzzing, bristling sensory experiences, weird objects, shadowy images, a flux of faces, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash — but most of all a powerfully magnetic primary caregiver whose wizardry astounds.

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 roots of a lifetime’s pattern of behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and even the choice of sweethearts all start here in this crucible.

We used to think this was the end of the story: first heredity, then the brain’s engraving mental maps in childhood. And after that you’re pretty much stuck with a final blueprint.

But as a wealth of new research and new imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life as we mature and forge friendships, dabble in affairs, succumb to romantic love, choose a soul mate. The body remembers how that oneness with Mother felt, and longs for its adult equivalent. (Maybe. This last statement is a non-sequitur, a giant leap.)

As the most social apes, we inhabit a mirror-world in which every important relationship, whether with spouse, friend or child, shapes the brain, which in turn shapes our relationships. Daniel J. Siegel and Allan N. Schore, colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently discussed groundbreaking work in the field at a conference on the school’s campus. It’s not that caregiving changes genes; it influences how the genes express themselves as the child grows. Dr. Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist, refers to the indelible sense of “feeling felt” that we learn as infants and seek in romantic love, a reciprocity that remodels the brain’s architecture and functions.

Does it also promote physical well-being? “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span,” says Dr. Siegel.

The supportive part is crucial. Loving relationships alter the brain the most significantly.

Just consider how much learning happens when you choose a mate. Along with thrilling dependency and interdependency comes glimpsing the world through another’s eyes, forsaking some habits and adopting others (good or bad), tasting new ideas and rituals and foods and landscapes, a slew of added friends and family, a tapestry of physical intimacy and affection, and many other catalysts, including a tornadic blast of attraction and attachment hormones — all of which revamp the brain.

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 as well as loan our own strengths and assets. 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.

Love is the best school, but the tuition is high and the homework can be painful and getting expelled excruciating. As imaging studies by the UCLA neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger show, the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active when someone feels socially rejected. That’s why being spurned by a lover hurts all over the body, but in no place you can point to. Or rather, you’d need to point to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, the front of a collar wrapped around the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers zinging messages between the hemispheres that register both rejection and physical assault.

Whether they speak Armenian or Mandarin, people around the world use the same images of physical pain to describe a broken heart, which they perceive as crushing and crippling. It’s not just a metaphor for an emotional punch. Being spurned can trigger the same sort of distress as a severe stomachache or a broken bone. (The starting of an intimate relationship, saying “I love you,” or the ending an intimate relationship should not be taken likely—because the eventual ending of it is often felt like a physical assault!)

But a loving touch is enough to change everything. James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments in 2006 in which he gave an electric shock to the ankles of women in happy, committed relationships. Tests registered their anxiety before, and pain level during, the shocks.  Then they were shocked again, this time holding their loving partner’s hand. The same level of electricity produced a significantly lower neural response throughout the brain.

In troubled relationships, this protective effect didn’t occur.

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.

“Alley by the Lake” – Oil Painting by Leonid Afremov

We alter one another’s physiology and neural functions. (When partners are deliberately good to one another, they alter each other’s physiology and neural functioning for the better; when partners are callous or indifferent to or neglect of one another, then begin altering each other’s physiology and neural functioning for the worse.)

But breaking old habits isn’t easy, since habits are deeply ingrained neural shortcuts, a way of slurring over details without having to dwell on them. Yet couples often do choose to rewire their brains on purpose, sometimes with a therapist’s help, to ease conflicts and strengthen their at-one-ness. We can decide to be a more attentive and compassionate partner, mindful of the other’s motives, hurts and longings.

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. (This is one of the great rewards in a long-term committed relationship where mutual love and trust and care have been established and demonstrated over and over again. And this is why every fracturing of trust and every act of neglect and indifference and lack of warmth and affection are so deleterious to a relationship. For a relationship to be truly beneficial to both people, both people have to show up every day to the relationship as their best self and minimize how much of what’s worst in each of them they vent into the relationship and on each other.) 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 (or long-term committed partnership) relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby. Small wonder “Baby” is a favorite adult term of 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.

So how does this play out beyond the lab? I saw the healing process up close after my 74-year-old husband, who is also a writer, suffered a left-hemisphere stroke that wiped out a lifetime of language. All he could utter was “mem.” Mourning the loss of our duet of decades, I began exploring new ways to communicate, through caring gestures, pantomime, facial expressions, humor, play, empathy and tons of affection — the brain’s epitome of a safe attachment. That, plus the admittedly eccentric home schooling I provided, and his diligent practice, helped rewire his brain to a startling degree, and in time we were able to talk again, he returned to writing books, and even his vision improved.

The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.

During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression. Wedded hearts change everything, even the brain.

      .                   .                    .                    .                   .                    .                    .                   .

For me, one of the biggest take aways from this article is that, regardless of our past and what has happened to us, how crucial it is for each of us to become more Loving—to become better able to act consistently with Love (or loving-kindness, what the Buddhists call “Metta”) towards others—especially those we interact with most often, but even to those we interact with less frequently. To paraphrase the Jungian psychologist James Hollis, we each owe the world the gift of our best self. And this article reinforces the idea that our best self is a self that is Loving, caring, warm, tender, affectionate, understanding, can get outside itself enough to look at the world through another self’s eyes and stretch itself walk awhile in another self’s shoes. Our best self is a self that is self-controlled, not highly reactive and dependent and unstable; it is a self that is attentive, not inattentive, and not indifferent; it is a self that is slow to anger and that is infrequent to act out angrily and unkindly, it is a self that is very courageous and very forgiving, and yet humble and honest and ego-less enough to make its amends when it has done wrong and or missed the mark.

Yes, habit—the accumulation of what we have learned and practiced and internalized (likely largely unconsciously) from the past—is a powerful force with a lot of momentum, and so it is certainly is a lot to overcome and rewire.

But it can be done.

It can be done in part through mindfulness—by learning to pay attention to our thoughts and actions and tone and inflection and emotions more. And it can be done in part through consciously choosing a few new and profound concepts and ideals to organize our lives around—concepts and ideals such as Love, the Dharma, Metta, Truth, objectivity, conscience, growth, emotional maturity, self-control, even mindfulness itself.

And yes, it can also be done by being loved. But we can’t always control that. But we can control how Loving we are to others—or at least learn to control how Loving and kind we are to others—and even ourselves. This is something that we can take upon ourselves like an apprenticeship, like the learning of any new subject or discipline we would like to master or become more proficient at.

“There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” – Alan Paton, “The Challenge of Fear,” in Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, pg. 46.

We are all born with God-given, unique traits and skills. But, as with all possibilities they will remain unrealized unless they are developed, nurtured, and put into practice. You may have the ‘capacity’ to love, but if left undeveloped, you will never gain the ‘ability.’ Love is life. And if you miss learning how to love, you will miss life.” – Leo Buscaglia

“We take love for granted. We assume we are all perfect lovers and all we need do is wait and our love will grow and blossom as readily as a flower in spring. Not so. Love doesn’t grow unless we do. It takes patience, knowledge, experience, determination, and every positive trait we possess. A life of love is one of continual growth, where the doors and windows of experience are always open to the wonder and magic that life offers. To love is to risk living fully.” – Leo Buscaglia

How do we create healthy, loving relationships? . . . By caring enough to work on them as diligently as we would if we wanted to perfect a game of golf, or tennis, or become a gourmet chef. These things don’t just happen. They require continual work. Yes, we are born for love, but it will die if not nurtured.” – Leo Buscaglia


About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "Alley by the Lake", Alan Paton, Diane Ackerman, Interpersonal Neurobiology, Intimacy, Intimate Relationships, Leo Buscaglia, Leonid Afremov, Mature Love, Mental Health, New York Times, Real Love, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Brain On Love, or “It’s Relatively Easy to Find Someone Who’ll Say ‘I Love You’—It’s Much Harder to Find Someone Who Actually Will Do So”

  1. mountainmae says:

    Neuroscience understanding is growing by leaps and bounds- fascinating.

    • John says:

      Agreed! It provides yet another very stimulating and suggestive way of looking at relationships and how to improve them and why it’s so darn important to do so!

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment! 🙂

      Kindest regards,


  2. granbee says:

    Oh, wow–did Alan Paton say it right back in 1967: We must always strive to exemplify man’s HUMANITY to man! In so doing, not only do we change our own brains with this type of agape love, but we change the brains of those around us! The I Declare World Peace (#IDWP) movement on Twitter is a great way to start–then spread the same way you feel when doing this to all those you encounter OFFLINE!

  3. Pingback: Love the One You’re With « creatingreciprocity

  4. kendra says:

    Hi John, I check your blog often. Your style and message are awesome. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    • John says:

      Thank you, Kendra for the very nice words and for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you are finding posts here that speak to you.

      Kindest regards,


  5. Pingback: Alley by the Lake | littlelizardd

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