“Love is nature’s way of tricking people into reproducing” – The urban dictionary
This might seem a bit harsh for when it comes to Valentines day we tend to focus purely on romantic love though 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”.
In many cultures today, marriages are arranged, and romance is often an after-thought.
Even though we think of romantic love as a natural sentiment, love is remarkably flexible and its expression changes with history and culture.
The neuroscience of love
Latest research into the neuroscience of love shows that what we think of as natural, is in fact a learnt response, hard-wired into the brain, to become an automatic reaction.
Think about it – it is only relatively recently that the hour-glass female figure has become an object of desirability. In days when having enough to eat was the domain of the rich, a somewhat rotund figure was considered the height of beauty – because it signalled wealth.
Brain activity in love
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 – our brain changes structure to be attracted to the new physicality of our partner.
Another example of our brain’s neuroplasticity can be found in the realm of sexual fantasies- underwear, for example, high heels, or sexual activities are learnt and wired into the brain. The more we focus on such fantasies the stronger these get hardwired; hence the addictive nature of pornography.
Neuroplasticity does have a downside though. How often do we hear that people who have had an abusive parent, go 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 re-wire 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 12 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.