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.