Philosophy Weekend: Diane Ackerman and the Neurobiology of Love

On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I’ve been struggling to express on this blog.

Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn’t widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.

Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.

This powerful point stands against the mechanistic moral individualism taught by devout Egoists like Thomas Hobbes or Ayn Rand — a bleak everyone-for-himself ethical point of view that is often presumed to be valid within debates, even though it’s never been proven or shown to be logical. There is much evidence against starkly individualist points of view in every discipline, and Ackerman’s article lays out the neurobiological case. The evidence, it turns out, is in the bright colors on the heat maps when (and only when) we interact with others. We could not be the people we are without our relationships. We are our relationships. What is an individual self? We’ve never met one, and neither have you.

Here’s my favorite part of Diane Ackerman’s article, excerpted from the middle of the piece (but please do read the whole thing):

Every great love affair begins with a scream. At birth, the brain starts blazing new neural pathways based on its odyssey in an alien world. An infant is steeped in bright, buzzing, bristling sensations, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash, weird objects, a flux of faces, shadowy images and dreams — 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 patterns of a lifetime’s behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin 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, after which you’re pretty much stuck with the final blueprint.

But as a wealth of 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.

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,” Dr. Siegel says, “point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.”

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 comes glimpsing the world through another’s eyes; forsaking some habits and adopting others (good or bad); tasting new ideas, rituals, foods or 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. 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.

* * * * *

Ackerman ends Your Brain On Love with a touching personal coda. Her husband had a stroke, she tells us, that shattered his ability to speak. This book was informed by the way she observed her own survival process with her husband: their willful behavior as a couple, their careful preservation of their instinct to love each other, all of which made it possible for both of them to adjust to their new circumstances.

Many songs say “I can’t live without you”. Diane Ackerman’s article reminds us how often these words are literally true.

4 Responses

  1. Our attractions are most
    Our attractions are most powerful when they become all-inclusive, daydreaming about that special someone that occupies our minds for long periods. It’s another way of expressing “love sickness”, the feeling that really does equate with sickness, a longing that needs to be fulfilled… to make us whole and feel wonderful.

    Our initial attractions that attain that powerful level far surpass the simple admiration – “what a fox!” or “what a hunk!” depending upon one’s personal attraction. This thing we call ‘love’ is real and without it in our lives, we are alone even when with friends or family. Our emptiness that was fulfilled during our infancy, is a constant search to regain until such time we are extremely fortunate to find our ‘soul mate’… the one that feels the same about us thereby bringing two into one, a powerful but yet nearly unexplainable at it’s source as to what that level of ‘oneness’ is. Our sciences delve into the consequences of ‘love’ by expertly explaining it on strictly physical terms, but what is it that instills the biological with the ‘energy’ that creates the responses within?

    Love is the only explainable answer that oddly we and our mates, or our close knit friends, can only agree that “it must be love” for what else can it be?

    Good mind food, Levi… thanks to Ms Ackerman and her studies.

  2. “When two people become a
    “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.”

    I’ve known of Diane Ackerman since high school when a girl in English class used one of her poems in a class assignment. Ackerman was the sci-fi poet. I think it’s great the career she’s made in literature and non-fiction, all surrounding science and a love of science and the natural world. This post made me learn a bit more of her and it was fascinating to find out she was one of Carl Sagan’s students.

    I got my start as an adult, after my rock n roll sojourn in my late teens and early 20’s, as a neurobiologist. I always wanted to see the use of neuroimaging grow and develop to learn things about how our brains work. It’s a difficult field and very costly. So I really appreciate any work done in the field.

    I must say that the paragraph above by Ackerman is quite beautiful. But I don’t think we needed neuroimaging or the complexities of our immune system to be known for us to understand. I seem to recall something written a long long time ago that said the same thing.

    Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

  3. …also, love has many
    …also, love has many different types…at any one time in a relationship, certain types of love experience the ebb and flow…think of a hi fi stereo equilizer, in-tune and making music the whole time….many get fixated on one or two types of love and have nothing to carry them though the low parts. like a band with a bad bass player. opportunities for expressions and gifts of love are endless…something about seventy times seventy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!