Romance has always been heart-shaped. After all, music, songs, and cards dedicated to the theme of love feature hearts, not brains! But recent research into the science of love reveals that specific parts of our brains and the hormones our brains secrete are actually responsible for causing us to fall in love and for keeping us there.
Your brain decides who is attractive to you, how well you’ll do on a date, how you’ll deal with the feelings that emerge, and how long those feelings will last.
Daniel Amen, a brain-imaging specialist and author of The Brain in Love says, “When the brain works right, it helps you be thoughtful, playful, romantic, intimate, committed, and loving with your partner. When the brain is dysfunctional, it causes you to be impulsive, distracted, addicted, unfaithful, angry, and even hateful, thus ruining chances for continued intimacy and love.”
Researchers at Amen’s clinics have been studying brains for more than 16 years and have more than 35,000 brain scans related to behavior. Amen’s clinics use single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging, a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. Amen is convinced that brain function can be improved.
He says, “Our guiding principle for the past sixteen years has been ‘Change your brain, change your life.’ ” Amen’s research indicates that healthy brain function is associated with more loving and sexual relationships, while poor brain function is associated with more fighting, less sex, and higher divorce rates.
your brain’s hardware
Brain research reveals that the human brain is divided into four main regions called lobes, and each of them makes its own contribution to the way you build connections with others.
There are also structures deep in the brain, such as the “gear shifter” (anterior cingulate gyrus), the anxiety and pleasure center (basal ganglia), and the emotional center (deep limbic system), that play powerful roles in making and shaping your life and relationships.
The lobe that Amen considers one of the most important for healthy relationships is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is located in the front third of the brain. The PFC is your brain’s chief executive officer. It has a lot to do with your ability to guide your behavior and reach your goals. It houses your conscience as well as your ability to stay on target and finish a job. It’s that “still, small voice” that helps you to decide between right and wrong.
Amen’s research reveals that when the PFC is in good shape, you will be more patient, thoughtful, goal driven, and empathetic. When it’s not in good shape, you’re likely to have a diminished conscience, poor judgment, impulsivity, and a desire to seek excitement. You’re also likely to have a short attention span, trouble learning from experience, poor time management, and a lack of empathy for the feelings of others.
Two researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, after assessing 194 studies on the PFC, found that increased death rates were associated with poor PFC activity due to impulsive behaviors (a lack of conscientiousness), tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, violence, risky sexual behavior, risky driving, and suicide. A healthy PFC is vital for a long and happy life!
It will obviously play an important role in the way you build and sustain your relationships and stay in love. A strong PFC means you will be better able to supervise your words and the ways you act. You will be able to think before you rush into speaking, and you’ll also be able to learn from your mistakes. You will be able to focus on your conversations and follow through on your commitments. You will be better able to express your feelings, and you will tend to dislike conflict, tension, and turmoil.
On the other hand, if your PFC is underactive, you will tend to be impulsive in what you do or say. You will tend to live in the moment and have trouble delaying gratification. You will find it hard to listen to what others are saying because you’re so easily distracted. You may have difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings, and your partners may complain of a lack of conversation in the relationship. You will tend to be fidgety and restless, and you’ll also find it hard to concentrate on a given task and see it through to completion.
Many people with PFC problems have an unconscious tendency to seek conflict or to look for problems where none exist. They may also seek high-risk activities that frighten or upset their partners, such as driving too fast, skydiving, or getting into the middle of a fight with strangers.
Another key area of the brain that especially speaks to your relational life is the Deep Limbic System (DLS). About the size of a walnut and lying near the center of your brain, the DLS is involved in setting your emotional tone. When the DLS is operating well, you will have a positive, more hopeful state of mind, but if it is “overheated,” you may tend to be more negative than is necessary.
The DLS provides a filter through which you interpret the events of the day. It will color these events according to the emotional state of your mind. Two components of the DLS are the hippocampus and the amygdala, and research is suggesting that these two structures store both positive and negative, highly charged emotional memories, which in turn can shape your overall emotional tone. Stable, positive experiences will enhance how you feel, while trauma and hurtful experiences influence you negatively.
In her book How to Argue So Your Spouse Will Listen, Sharon May indicates that it is the amygdala that adds emotional meaning to all of your experiences. While the hippocampus “stores factual and contextual information, . . . [it’s the amygdala that] stores the feelings linked with a particular situation.” May suggests that when you were hurt or scared as a child, you reacted and responded in a particular way. How you felt when those experiences happened, as well as the way you responded, were stored together in your brain.
While your memory bank may or may not store all the factual details of a past event, your emotional brain will remember that when it happened, you felt sad, fearful, or abandoned. In the future, any situation that resembles the original event will trigger the same sad and fearful emotional reaction.
This helps to explain many of the conflicts that catch us unaware. Have you ever wondered why a simple statement or question from your partner led so quickly to a full-blown hurtful argument? It’s because the emotional memories that your brain attached to past events were triggered by the current event, and without even being aware of it, you returned emotionally to the time when you experienced the original reaction.
The times you felt unsafe and fearful—your amygdala has all those memories on file. And without thinking, you responded out of those same emotions.
In fact, research suggests that information traveling to the emotional brain travels twice as fast as information traveling to the thinking brain! Within 15 milliseconds, your amygdala processes the information, rapidly scans your memory bank, and performs a quick reaction that may not always be positive.
When you respond in fear and anger, for example, your heart rate can increase by 10 to 30 beats per minute! Things will rapidly deteriorate in your relationships if you’re unable to give your thinking brain permission to step in and slow the whole process down, take time out to pause and reflect, and then respond in more caring and empathetic ways.
Your brain’s software
Your brain is a chemical factory looking for love. You possess a complex chemical cocktail of hormones that are involved in all phases of your love life—attraction, infatuation, commitment, and even in a breakup. The best known of these hormones are testosterone and estrogen, but you need to add to these nitric oxide, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, phenylethylamine (PEA), oxytocin, and vasopressin. All of these play a part in shaping how you live and love in relationships with others.
Conversations are going on in your brain all the time. The vital group of chemicals referred to as neurotransmitters are the messengers, and their language consists of minute reactions that fire nerve cells. Neurotransmitters carry messages between different parts of your brain as well as spur some cells to be more active and responsive while forcing others to calm, slow down, and remain quiet.
Dr. Archibald Hart, well-known psychologist and author, outlines the key role played by the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the way you feel about life and the way you relate to others. GABA is found in abundance in your brain. The presence or absence of this “happy messenger” can make or break your peace of mind. It is the essential messenger that calms your overzealous nerves as well as helping you to remember.
Amen suggests that one way to realize the importance of maintaining a healthy chemical balance in your brain is to think of an orchestra playing a symphony. If any musician plays out of sync with the others, the music can be ruined. And he points out that a “fulfilling sexual relationship is very similar to a well-conducted symphony with respect to the synergy of [the] many hormones and chemicals that are released at different phases of the love relationship. If a hormone or brain chemical is out of balance compared to the others (over- or underproduced), the entire sexual experience can be ruined.”
I recommend that you learn all you can about how your brain’s hardware and software work together to produce emotions and memories, and especially how you can develop positive patterns of response that will enrich and enhance your love and intimacy with those who are so special in your life.
You can train your thoughts to be positive and hopeful, or you can allow them to be negative and upset you. Learn how to change your thoughts, and you can learn to change the way you feel.
Negative thoughts are like ants at a picnic—very annoying and can spoil the day. Automatic negative thoughts (ANTS), such as those listed below, need to be crushed or they will ruin your relationships, self-esteem, and your personal power.
- Always/never thinking: Repeating such words to yourself as always, never, no one, everyone, every time, and everything.
- Focusing on the negative: Seeing only the bad in any situation.
- Fortune-telling: Predicting the worst possible outcome of a situation.
- Mind reading: Believing that you know what others are thinking, even though they haven’t told you.
- Thinking with your feelings: Believing negative feelings without ever questioning them.
- Guilt beating: Thinking in words such as should, must, ought, or have to.
- Labeling: Attaching a negative label to yourself or to someone else.
- Personalizing: Investing innocuous events with personal meaning.
- Blaming: Accusing someone else as responsible for your own problems