The human ability to learn and adapt is king among our capacities – and research suggests that love is the queen of conditions enabling change and growth. We are wired, mind and body, to love and learn.
Love changes the brain. In general, change in life correlates with physical change in the brain made possible by neural plasticity. Love, bonding, and their associated neuromodulator, oxytocin, can initiate massive plastic change in the brain. Oxytocin has been described as “an amnesiac hormone” because it seems to soften neural networks in preparation for new learning and behaviors.
In The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes, “Plasticity allows us to develop brains so unique—in response to our individual life experiences—that it is often hard to see the world as others do … but what nature provides, in a neuromodulator like oxytocin, is the ability for two brains to go through a period of heightened plasticity, allowing them to mold to each other and shape each other’s intentions and perceptions” (p. 121).
Perhaps this is why Socrates so strongly connected learning, pursuing wisdom, and “the art of love.”
Being in Love
Must we fall in love every day to pursue change and growth? Not exactly. But you can commit to be in love every day and enjoy the benefits.
In 2008, Fredrickson and colleagues demonstrated that practicing loving-kindness meditation predictably induced positive emotions that built resources, increased life satisfaction, and buffered against depression. The research data suggests a positive dose-response relationship between meditation and positive emotions – literally, the more, the merrier. In this type of meditation, a person imagines and practices feeling loving-kindness for his or herself, friends and family, strangers and even people who have caused them pain.
Fredrickson notes, “The practice of loving-kindness meditation led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe … These shifts were linked to increases in a variety of personal resources including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health. Moreover these gains in personal resources were consequential: They enabled people to become more satisfied with their lives and to experience fewer symptoms of depression” (p. 1057).
Physical touch is critical to early brain development, and the interplay of body and mind remains powerful throughout life. The positive emotions that buffer against depression and build health are embodied, somatic experiences.
Our bodies are constantly communicating with and influencing one another beyond our control. In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and colleagues note that while most people assume their bodies are self-regulating–that our physiological balance happens inside our own skins–we are actually “open-loop systems.” Our bodies constantly fine-tune functioning, adjusting heart rate and blood pressure, temperature, immune function, levels of sugars, hormones, etc. But some of our physiological systems are built to synchronize with others.
Lewis calls this reciprocal process “limbic regulation.” One person’s body transmits regulatory information inside the body of the first, and vice-versa, simultaneously. Lewis and colleagues note, “Neither is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete. Together, they create a stable, properly balanced pair of organisms.”
This open loop system can support healing and positive change. Human warmth and compassionate touch prime the release of oxytocin in brain and body.
When discussing the prospect of mass medication to fight rising depression, Lewis and colleagues write, “Less drastic routes abound: warm human contact also generates internal opiate release. Our lovers, spouses, children, parents, and friends are our daily anodynes, delivering the magic of forgetfulness from the twinging ache of mammalian loneliness. Potent magic indeed” (p. 96).
Love, in its many forms, has great benefits. And love is not lost nor found, but built, shared, savored, and practiced. Regarding happiness and success, the Dalai Lama has said:
“I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It is the ultimate source of success in life.”
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books.
Fredrickson et al. (2008) Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 95(5), Nov 2008, pp. 1045-1062.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lanoran, R.. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.