Information from a relatively new field called interpersonal neurobiology suggests we’re never too old to learn. In fact, who we love has the power to constantly rewire our brain. And at the base of it all is the quality of our relationships; our interpersonal contacts with those we love deeply, and those we love, well, a whole lot less.
Simply stated, all our relationships change our brains. The hard wiring may not really be that hard wired after all. From our first reactions following birth with our mothers, brain scans reveal an unspoken bond between mother and child that imprints his or her brain so powerfully that many of our future relationships evolve from it.
But this new science suggests that the story is far from over at birth. Sure, heredity plays a part, and childhood engraves an etching in our minds, but we now know through imaging studies that friendships, love affairs, romance and love also wield a powerful imprint on our minds; a longing for our initial intimacy with our mother puts us in an unending quest for an adult equivalent.
How powerful is this quest? Potent enough to influence how our genes express themselves. And this is where the impact on health and well-being comes in. Relationships that are caring and loving have the most significant ability to affect our brains by affecting our mental health, our happiness, our wisdom and even our medical health and longevity. All that from being in a loving and supportive relationship. In fact, positive relationships may be the most important predictor of these positive life experiences throughout our lives.
If you think about it, when we choose our mate, we are also choosing a new group of friends and family, new perspectives, new rituals, foods and favorite places. All of these experiences plus the hormones that come with passion and excitement are believed to be a major way in which our brains are altered and rewired, and our health and perspective are affected. In essence, the other person imprints our brain and forever alters it. Thinking back to who we were before we met our mate, it certainly makes sense. Who doesn’t feel “changed” after living with and loving someone for a long time? Like Cole Porter said, “I’ve got you under my skin.” What the interpersonal neurobiologists add is, “…and I’ve absorbed you.”
New brain studies by Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA showed that when a person feels rejected, the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex of their brains “light up” in the same areas as the brains of persons experiencing physical pain. It’s why as the song goes, “breaking up is hard to do.” Her studies also showed the opposite for those that are close and who give support to a loved one; giving also stimulates the pleasure centers of the giver’s brain. Related work by James Coen of the University of Virginia showed that the negative impact of giving a mild electric shock to a woman who is in a happy, committed relationship will produce much less of an impact on her anxiety, pain and blood pressure if she is holding her partner’s hand.
So, mad and passionate sex isn’t the only way to warm our hearts; sometimes just the feeling the support of a held hand as we face life’s sometime challenging journey will do the trick. All because our brains transform that support into insulation for the “shocks” life sends our way. Stormy relationships do not get this protective effect from handholding or being supported.
I remember my wife taking a favorite photo of the two of us into labor and delivery when she was in labor with our first child, and a photo of our first child into labor and delivery when she was in labor with our second child. Looking at those photos was a great comfort to her. Now functional MRI, or fMRI as it is called, is able to show that images of loved ones can light up the reward centers of our minds. Even more impressive are studies that show the brains of couples that are madly in love light up the same areas of their brains as cocaine addicts do, with the exception that cocaine addicts also light up the areas of anxiety and fear whereas those in love demonstrate calmness in the brain areas associated with anxiety and fear. The brains of those in love also light up areas linked to pleasure and pain relief.
So what does this all mean for you and me? Quite a lot, it seems. Our brains can change as we grow and as we grow old – for the better or for the worse. To take advantage of this new information, we must shed bad relationships and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones – people who make us feel safe and loved like a mother makes her baby feel. It’s one of the major paths to a healthy relationship and to a healthy you.