• Part of an essay in progress

How love changes the brain

Posted January 1, 2014 11:31 am  

Every significant relationship alters the brain, which in turn alters future relationships. Some researchers in interpersonal neurobiology, the field that focuses on how the brain continues to rewire itself throughout life, are studying how the baby’s experience of feeling loved predisposes us to seek that feeling again. In an article in the March 25th, 2012 NYTimes, Diane Ackerman, the author of the memoir, 100 Names of Love, writes about new evidence that seeks to explain the process, citing a study by Siegel and Schore at the University of CA in LA:

“It’s not that care-giving changes genes; it influences how the genes express themselves as a 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.”

Ackerman points out that when a couple comes together, “the brain extends its idea of itself to include the other; …a plural self emerges who can borrow some of the other’s asserts and strengths…We don’t just get under a mate’s skin, we absorb him or her.’

This notion helps explain why it is so hard for people to return to being an “I” after years of living as part of a “we.” I noticed this with my father after my mother died. He treated his housekeepers as substitute partners and couldn’t wait to begin talking about “where we went to dinner,” emphasizing the word ‘we,’ which gave me the sense that it was, in fact, the whole purpose of the sentence. I’d realized at the time that my father was having trouble seeing himself as a complete person without a woman; I hadn’t thought before of his struggle being underscored by the wiring in his brain that had created a deep groove around the expression, “we,” habits, as Ackerman points out, being “deeply ingrained neural shortcuts.”

Getting back to her premise about the early-learned feeling of reciprocity in love, she has this to say about how the feeling is translated in adulthood: “One needn’t consciously regard a lover as momlike to profit from the parallels. The body remembers, the brain recycles and restages.”


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