"The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know." Many a philosopher and poet have pondered one of our most motivating emotions—love—offering little towards the understanding of this most compelling of experiences. While psychology has been deeply involved in the effects of love on humans, it is only recently that the biochemists and physiologists have taken on the inner-workings one of the most perplexing and life-altering experiences that humans have..
Einstein once said, "Marriage is the unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an accident." The newest research would tend to concur with Einstein: Love is indeed unintentional and involuntary—it just "happens." This in no way suggests that love, or marriage, is a mistake. What it does imply is that love cannot be directed or controlled, is sometimes aimed towards those who cannot return it, and has the capacity to bring great joy or unbearable misery to one's life. Romanticize love rather than understand its physiological roots, it's meaning, and its purpose, and you risk losing your mind to it..
The heart—the "feeling" mind—is in every respect as influential in human decision-making as is logic and reason, if not more so. There are anatomical, physiological, and social reasons why this is so. Giving in to one's heart is not necessarily a liability in creating a happy life, though modern American society would have one believe it is a sign of weakness or stupidity (except in advertising, where it is used to manipulate and persuade us). As much as the logical, reasoning, abstracting, left-hemisphered rational mind is worshipped and groomed in higher education, we all live most of our lives through our feeling, sensing, emotionally-responsive mind. The emotional mind is where our identities lie, where intuition and pre-logical impressions give rise to new insights, where appreciation for beauty and pleasure lie, and where we relate to other living things. The feeling mind is most of who we are..
The most common fallacy of this day is: "I think, therefore everything I am is what I think." Astonishingly, most people are usually aware of what they think (the internal verbalizations), rather than what they feel. The most difficult task a therapist has is getting a patient to describe his or her own feelings. Many patients literally don't know what they feel—are cut off from their emotions; others simply find describing them a daunting task. We use language to attempt to transcribe our emotions to another, but much is lost in the translation even for the most expressive of us. (Language is, after all, a translation of what happens in the brain, not the actual event). Worse, most people believe that they can make themselves feel a certain way, can think themselves into a different mood. Not so. A person cannot direct, but only influence his/her emotional life. No one can will him- or herself to love the right mate, to want the right thing, or to be happy after a sad event. We humans frequently castigate ourselves for our failure to will emotional change, when in reality emotion cannot be commanded and does not bend to will..
Evolutionary processes are responsible for how the human brain is constructed and functions. Evolution does not happen linearly, progressing along a predictable path. It is a haphazard branching process in which recent developments build atop older structures having more fundamental functions, with each newer structure becoming ever more complex, adding functions, altering the workings of previous structures..
The human brain is a triune organ; three main evolutionary levels of anatomy comprise it:
The reptilian brain (brainstem): primitive functions reside here, such as the startle reflex, fear, sex, territorialism, and ritualistic display. It is essential to all automatic functions: heartbeat, breathing, thermostat, swallowing, and visual tracking. The reptilian brain is the oldest of the brain's structures and is deep within the center of the brain, a bulb of neurons atop the spinal cord..
The mammalian brain (limbic system): anger, love, joy, sadness, shame, pride, happiness, mirth, separation anxiety, etc. are processed here. This is where the identity—personhood—resides. The mammalian brain evolved after the reptilian brain, neatly enveloping the bulb of the brainstem. All mammals, and some birds, possess this second stage of brain structure..
The neocortex (reasoning brain): abstraction (art, representation, planning, strategy, symbols, language), free will, communication, and complex skills are processed here. The neocortex is the most recent structure, and is the outermost layer of the brain. Higher mammals and humans have a well-developed neocortex..
The chemistry of primal and recent brain systems is different, evidenced by selective destruction of certain brain cells with specific toxins that leave other structures untouched. Because of this biochemical variance, these "three brains" sometimes have competing interests, creating disharmony and unease..
It is easy for humans to think of themselves as the pinnacle of evolution. However, we are in no way the apex of evolution; we are simply the most recent. We have not been here very long. By far, Komodo dragons and beetles are splendidly successful, and eons older than humans. Nature has yet to show us that our particular kind of intelligence has a decided evolutionary advantage. As evolution continues, nature tries new things, makes many mistakes, and succeeds at only a handful. Nature overproduces. It is grandiose and wasteful in its attempt to ensure survival of just the few who will prevail into new generations. It is quite possible our triune brains may fail us. It is equally possible that new structures will evolve that make complex brains more adaptive than they are now..
What does this have to do with love? Everything. As a mammalian trait, affectionate attachments have survival advantages—not only for mating purposes, but as a security factor in communal living so common with most mammals (including us). We are social animals, and that means very much more than just getting help when we need it, or reproducing. It means truly bonding with others in a way that seems magical..
We share in common with most mammals, a capacity for knowing and loving another that transcends reason, logic, or free will. Our faculty for internally connecting with another of our own kind, or even with a member of a different species, derives from the structure and physiology of our mammalian "feeling" brains. The emotional bond of affectionate attachment is so overwhelming and consuming as to be nearly miraculous. It is as close to mind reading and psychic connection as we—in common experience—can get. The capacity to love, rather than our cognitive skills, may be the very thing that ensures our survival as a species..
Our capacity to emotionally bond with another is mediated through a phenomenon known to physiologists and behaviorists as "limbic resonance." Limbic resonance is the tuning in to another's internal state; it is the most reliable way a mammal can know the emotional state of another without the necessity of translation (facial expressions, language). Limbic resonance occurs in all mammals, but is absent in reptiles, fish, and most birds. It occurs through eye contact, and the sensations multiply through mutual recognition and the continual back and forth feedback. Two nervous systems for an instant become in sync. Limbic resonance is the foundation of the "love at first sight" phenomenon, combined with other factors such as programmed attractors described below. Limbic resonance is responsible for that tickle in the pit of your stomach when you look into the eyes of someone you adore. When you feel that tickle, so does the other, and the feeling propagates and augments the growing attraction, building the affectionate attachment..
Because feelings can "leap from mind to mind" so to speak, the absence of such feedback is disturbing—as in meeting someone you instantly dislike, and can't put your finger on why. Many have lost their ability to fully emotionally resonate with another—becoming insensitive, even cold towards others in favor of reason and logic. People know when they are liked, when others feel comfortable around them. Likewise, a negative internal response from another may be reflected back to them in ways we cannot fully understand, and the feelings of discomfort, of dislike, amplify. It is difficult to befriend or even like someone who cannot resonate with you..
The limbic activity of others around us allows us to achieve almost immediate congruence—it can be felt in a movie theater, or as a surge of emotion as panic propagates through a crowd. The ability to read another's emotional state is older than our own species, yet we distrust it, devalue the sheer joy of being alone with another for the pure experience of his or her inner state, and further isolate ourselves. This is society's legacy of alienation and loneliness, and we suffer immeasurably for it..
The inner state of others must matter to us. It is essential to our survival and to our individual health more than most of us are aware..
The human is a social animal. Human sociability extends far beyond the need for reproduction, for security in numbers, or for commerce. Modern physiology research has discovered that the human body is not a self-regulating, closed-loop organism. Human physiology depends on limbic resonance from others to achieve physiological balance. Homeostasis derives from physiological synchronicity with another. Heart and breathing rate, hormone levels, immune response, sleep rhythms, blood pH, and neurochemistry are influenced by the presence of another or several others, and you in turn, regulate others. Human physiology does not direct all of its own functions; it is interdependent. It must be steadied by the physical presence of another. This is necessary for both physical and emotional health. In many ways, humans cannot be stable on their own—they require another to survive. Health and happiness mean finding people who regulate you well, and staying near them. It is the basis of communal living, and makes ostracism from any social contact the cruelest of punishments. (Luckily, cross-species attachments are equally as valid as human-to-human ones, hence the well-documented benefits of keeping pets)..
In a relationship, one mind revises the other's; one heart changes the other's. We are capable of remaking the emotional life of the one we love; and he or she remodels us. Who we are and who we become depends in part on who we love. Yet, we change emotionally over a lifetime, sometimes growing closer and even more compatible; sometimes becoming a stranger to those we were once so attuned with. It is quite possible, that because of this mutual limbic revision and a 50% chance of emotional drift, that marriage is physiologically a 50-50 prospect. Statistically, about 50% of marriages or long relationships tend to fall apart at about the twenty-year mark. Those who divorce find that staying with the "alienated" partner, is more lonely and stressful than being with no one. It is quite possible that "till death do we part" is too much to expect. True life-mates are rare. If you find one, hold that person near for as long as you can..
Surviving Incompatibility and Loss
Contact with loved ones raises natural opiate and seratonin levels. Likewise, artificial increases of seratonin and opiates greatly reduce the pain of losing someone or severing a relationship. Those who need frequent surges of natural opiates will require more contact with loved ones than those who are less opiate-sensitive..
This is yet another factor in determining how compatible two people may be—do you have the same needs for a rush of brain chemistry?
Mismatched chemistries can become a contest of wills, wherein one requires cuddles while the other craves solitude. The emotionally needy partner will feel neglected and rejected; the more independent partner will feel suffocated and controlled. Such discord can change the brain chemistry of each partner to such an extent as to destroy any feelings of love and dissolve an affectionate attachment. One or both partners will be said to be "in a mood," a state of enhanced readiness to experience a particular emotion. Someone who stays in a bad mood for a long time has been repeatedly stimulated to experience a single emotion, and he or she rides that swirling vortex for weeks on end. The neocortex, with its ability to hypothesize, stimulates the limbic brain to respond. The limbic brain, unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, responds even when no real threat exists. In fact, brain scans reveal that perception and imagination stimulate the exact same brain areas. This means that your perceptions of your partners intentions and behavior can rule how you respond to your partner, regardless of your partner's true intentions..
Memory and Emotion
Emotions do indeed color the recall of experience. If the emotion is strong enough, it can inhibit opposing feelings so completely as to make the memories of those opposing emotions completely inaccessible. A person can effectively change history in his own head. Rage can make a man strike the woman he forgets he loves. Likewise, strong emotions serve to amplify responses to nearly benign experiences: past abuses can greatly amplify a response to an angry expression; a mildly sad experience can cascade into a nightmare of depression. Experience rewires the brain: what it has experienced dictates what it can experience; how much feeling was associated with past experiences influences and perhaps amplifies subsequent similar experiences, or even intimations of similar experiences..
Attractors and Love Attachments
Limbic resonance, limbic revision, and limbic recognition are not the only factors influencing our love choices. Your lifetime bonding experiences teach you how love works, creates your attractors (those tiny behaviors or qualities in others that you associated with love in your earliest years), which in turn influences who you love. Given the pre-logical character of the limbic system, love choices sometimes make little sense. The neocortex isn't the brain making the decision or guiding the heart..
Being "in love" with someone encompasses three characteristics: the belief that this one person fits in a way no one else can or will; the need for skin-to-skin closeness; the urge to disregard all else. It is a kind of madness, and it is temporary. Truly loving another necessitates knowing the other through sustained and prolonged intimacy; sharing a life, a mutuality of limbic resonance and regulation..
Staying in a relationship that deviates from one's "ideal model" (the person who possesses the appropriate attractors, resonates with us, and regulates us well) is living in a disturbed isolation. It is the most miserable kind of loneliness. Yet, most people will stay in a terrible relationship with someone their limbic brain recognizes, rather than be in a boringly pleasant relationship with a kinder partner..
People who require limbic revision (rather than simply respond over time), usually have pathological attractors. Negative incidents and behaviors become associated with love. These people may pick fights or nag their mates for the reward of "making up," create unease through jealousy, or do other negative things to keep the "zest" in the relationship. These people drain others, and leach the life out of those they love. They are so needy as to have nothing whatsoever to give, but can only take through creating discord and animosity. They are eternally unhappy, but not for any particular reason. Healthier potential mates may steer clear of someone they sense is perpetually unhappy. These people can benefit most from the bond between therapist and patient. Two people who require limbic revision are the last two people who can help each other..
What we do inside relationships is the most important aspect of life. Modern American life embraces activities and attitudes that not only discourage limbic resonance and love, but seek to destroy it...
The Internet is exemplary of the escalating syndrome of self-imposed isolation while engaged in seeking out contact with others that cannot possibly benefit us physiologically if such contact remains electronic. The Internet is often touted as a global community, but we do not resonate with others. When we are online, we are alone. This paradox occurs to few; the consequences of such isolation has yet to be studied and assessed..
The damaging affects of parental absence during infancy through "toddlerhood" are well documented. Yet, society devalues, even shames parents who choose to parent full-time, rather than work outside the home. The incessant drone of advertisements encourages getting love through things rather than through other humans. Material gain and social status become all-consuming, and relationships are considered disposable to materialistic ideals. Only those with the courage to reject America's values—social status, titles, expensive vacations, Madison Avenue physiques, designer possessions everywhere—will have a decent life in creating time for loving others, and being loved in return..
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