The neuroscience of love

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Love is nature’s way of tricking people into reproducing” – the urban dictionary

Antique Valentine's Card

Antique Valentine’s Card

At first glance, this might seem a bit harsh, for when it comes to marriage we tend to focus purely on romantic love. However, this has not always been the norm: it only gained popularity in Europe in the Middle Ages, with knights setting out on adventures and performing services for ladies in the name of nobility and chivalry. This was known as ‘courtly love’.

Before then, marriage was more like a business deal, matching pieces of land to the best advantage. Still today, in many cultures, marriages are arranged, and romance is often an after-thought.

But even though we think of romantic love as a natural sentiment, love is remarkably flexible and its expression changes with history and culture.

Brain activity in love

Think about it – it’s only relatively recently that the hour-glass female figure has become an object of desirability. You only have to compare one of Peter Paul Reubens’ voluptuous ladies to a modern supermodel to see how our tastes and perceptions of beauty have changed over time: a rounder figure once represented wealth and prosperity, which is now signalled by a much slimmer frame.

Our brain hardwires ideas of taste, love and sexual attraction, and as our tastes change over time, the brain re-wires itself to accommodate the changes. How else can a loving couple who meet in their mid-twenties still be attracted to each other in their mid-fifties – neuroplasticity allows our brain structure to change, so that we are attracted to the changing physicality of our partner.

Neuroplasticity does have a downside though. How often do we hear that someone with an abusive parent has gone on to marry an abusive spouse? This is because the brain has ‘learnt’ that relationships should be abusive, and has wired itself accordingly. It is only once they have managed to rewire their brain, often through therapy, that people can progress to a non-abusive relationship.

“How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” – Albert Einstein

Science confirms being in love reduces stress

“The key to understanding how to sustain long-term romantic love is to understand it a bit scientifically,” positive psychology researcher Adoree Durayappah wrote . “Our brains view long-term passionate love as a goal-directed behavior to attain rewards. Rewards can include the reduction of anxiety and stress, feelings of security, a state of calmness, and a union with another.”

 

On a personal note, I can testify to the validity of the ‘plastic’ brain when it comes to love and attraction. I met my wife when she was 33, and 15 years later, I am even more in love and attracted to her.

So in answer to Paul McCartney’s, “Will you still love me when I’m 64?, it’s an emphatic YES from me, backed-up with the latest discoveries from the neuroscience of love.

Further reading

 

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