Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Our Valentine Gift to You: 6 Days of Sneak Peeks at Your Brain on Love
Whether you are falling in love, settled in love, recovering from lost love or simply dazed and confused about love, our book, This is Your Brain in Love could be the perfect Valentine gift for you to give yourself to help you get smart with your heart. Starting today and every day until Valentine's Day, I want to share an excerpt from This is Your Brain in Love, a book on which I was privileged to collaborate with brain expert, therapist and warmhearted friend, Dr. Earl Henslin. (Forward by Dr. Daniel Amen.) Here's an excerpt from the first chapter, "Is Your Brain in Love, or On Drugs?"
What does a brain in the throes of initial romantic passion look like, feel like, behave like?
The briefest explanation is that it looks eerily similar to a brain on cocaine. Brain scans of a person newly in love and of someone on cocaine, show that both have areas of the brain that light up like a tipsy Christmas tree. Humans are literally “high on love” when we first get hit with the drugs of love.
Two researchers, British brain mapper Semir Zeki and American anthropologist-psychologist Helen Fisher, used brain imaging to explore what happens to brains in the first months of romantic passion. The area that lit up was the deep limbic system, where Helen Fisher concluded that “the chemical storms, leading to infatuation, almost certainly have their physical origin.” In romantic love, the emotional center of the brain is firing so strongly it completely over powers the logic center. Dopamine is among the strongest neurochemicals associated with a feeling of extra energy and heightened awareness singularly focused on the object of desire.
As these powerful chemicals (the “love potion”) run amok in our brains, they do something very interesting—something that explains why love can make even PhDs seem dopey and wise people do remarkably crazy things. These love chemicals not only produce a natural high, but they also dilute and cancel out the nerve chemical called serotonin. Serotonin, besides having well-known antidepressant effects, also has antiobsessive, calming influences on our brain. Healthy doses of serotonin in the brain tends to help us control impulses, unruly passions, and obsessive behavior. It aids the sense of power and logic over our irrational impulses and gives us the feeling of being in control. A severe depletion of serotonin, along with a sharp rise in dopamine, can induce all those classical symptoms that go with the first waves of romantic attraction: panic, anxiety, queasiness, manic behavior, depression, and obsession. This is why people say, "I can't get her or him out of my mind. I'm thinking about this person all the time. I’m obsessed!”
There have even been semi-serious suggestions among scientists that the unhealthily love-obsessed should be given a good dose of an SSRI (antiobsessive antidepressant) to clear up the brain fog and open their eyes to reality.
Once a couple experiences romantic touching, kissing, and ultimately lovemaking, there is a second chemical storm that takes place deep inside both of their brains. A blast of oxytocin explodes and showers the brain with natural opiates that we know as endorphins, so that new love mimics a “cocaine-on-the-brain” state of mind. A man's oxytocin levels are five times as strong during lovemaking. In women, the oxytocin levels can soar even higher.
Oxytocin, moreover, combines with the hormone vasopressin, which helps create vivid emotional, sensory memories, which in turn deepens feelings for the love object. This little bonding hormone instantly works like superglue to the heart and makes you feel happy, even euphoric, when you hear a piece of music you both love, smell his aftershave, or hear the soft sound of her voice. It makes you prefer the shape, sound, smell, and look of your mate above all others. In several animal studies, scientists have successfully made faithful spouse-snuggling monogamists out of former playboy rodents by giving them doses of vasopressin. And even more interesting, new studies have shown that men who have more vasopressin in their systems tend to make more contented husbands. Maybe someday there will be a test for single girls to give to their potential suitors—to make sure they’ve got plenty of this “monogamy hormone” in their systems.
These oxytocin highs, with their consequent endorphin hits, do much to explain why it feels like a withdrawal from drugs when the object of our affection goes cold, or worse, is imagined in the arms of another. It is no small wonder that a heartbroken lover’s brain is similar to a brain in acute depression. Just as there are serotonin receptors in the brain, there are serotonin receptors in the heart. The pain you feel in your heart when you lose someone close to you is the result of these changes in serotonin.
But what happens as time marches on and the nuero-storms that we once expected to light passion’s fire begin to diminish? Again, it is similar to the way a body adjusts to a drug that at first produces a euphoric high, but eventually wears off and is less and less effective. Typically, as previously noted, we get the love-chemical cocktail for about six to eighteen months delivered free of charge, service of the Creator. (I’ve always thought that premarital counseling during this time of intoxication is wasted money and time. When engaged couples come in, I sometimes jokingly suggest they come back to see me in six months, when their brains are detoxed from the love high.) Then the cocktail begins to wear off as the part of our brain that is logical and reasonable comes back into the forefront of our emotional lives.
This is where two lovers meet the crossroads of their life together and face three choices:
1.Let go of this relationship and start a new one so you can re-experience the endorphin highs. Then do the same thing again and again and again.
2.Settle for less. Learn to be satisfied with a less than regularly passionate marriage and put your heart into other things, such as your children, work, hobby, friends, or a new dream.
3.Become Master-Level Lovers, lovers who know the secret of proactive passion and practice it daily for the rest of their married lives. Become the blessed few.
We’ve all known people—and perhaps you are one—who have chosen the options behind Door #1 and Door #2.
Hopefully those of you reading this blog would like a peek behind Door #3 and the secrets it holds for a lifetime of passion and love PhD in true, lasting love. Stay tuned for the next five days when I'll post excerpts on the 5 Types of Lovers. Or if you'd like to order the book for yourself, you'd click on the icon of the book to the right and it will take you to Amazon!