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The Gravity of Love: How Relationships Impact Body and Mind

By: Kristine San Miguel, MDThe Gravity of Love: How Relationships Impact Body and Mind

It was 1977, the year the twin Voyager spacecrafts were carrying precious cargo on their journey beyond the solar system: special records that contained a Mozart aria, greetings in 55 languages, and the brain waves of a young woman newly in love, among other things.

Renowned astronomer Carl Sagan led the Golden Record project, intended to introduce the people of Earth to any beings the spacecrafts might encounter. Sagan’s teammate Ann Druyan had her brain waves measured with an EEG test which was then compressed into one minute of sound.

Sagan and Druyan had realized they were in love at the time EEG test was conducted. Eighteen years after Druyan became Sagan’s widow, the precious song of a brain in love (sounds like exploding firecrackers) is still soaring into the vastness of space.

The question of how human nature reacts to love is well-worn territory for philosophers, theologians, and artists. But to many scientists, the answer lies in the mystery of our brain, the three-pound organ between our ears firing nearly 100 billion neurons.

A brief history of the brain

This sophisticated organ has been evolving for millions of years through a process similar to adding ice cream scoops to a cone. David J. Linden, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins University neuro­scientist and author of The Compass of Pleasure states that the lower parts of the brain like cerebellum and hypothalamus (responsible for survival-oriented behavior like sex drive and eating) haven’t evolved as much. “In fact, ours are not fundamentally different to lizards,” he says, describing the first evolutionary scoop.

“Higher centers involved in emotional processing, like the hippocampus and amygdala, are a lot more elaborate in mice than in lizards,” he says of the second scoop. “Then as you move farther up, humans have a giant, complex cortex,” he says of the top scoop. The interaction between these older and newer brain regions makes our thoughts and language today.

“Both people and mice can feel pleasure from eating and making babies, which both need to survive and pass down their genes. But only a human can take pleasure in fasting or abstaining from sex, which has no evolutionary advantage. The miracle of human thinking is that our ancient pleasure circuitry can be activated by higher, more complicated parts of our brain,” Linden explains.

Human evolution is a glacial process, but we can directly affect our personal “evolution” in our lifetime with repeated patterns of thoughts and feelings says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D., author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

Our mental muscle on love

The romantic love Ann Druyan experienced when she first fell for Carl Sagan and the long-lasting bond that linked the couple until Sagan’s death 19 years later are two distinct types of love that arise from different brain regions.

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University, clarifies that romantic love originates in the ventral tegmental area (the oldest part of the brain) near brain centers that govern thirst and hunger. “Romantic love is a more primitive response than feelings of attachment, which are more recent,” she says. This circuitry is linked to lifelong love.

“People in long-lasting love relationships show activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked with ‘positive illusion’—the ability to overlook cons and focus on pros,” Fisher says. For example, a wife easily gets annoyed when her husband doesn’t pick up his socks, but still loves his sense of humor.” This mindset may help nurture loving feelings long after the honeymoon period.

Love on mental health

A study conducted by American psychologist Harry Harlow Ph.D. demonstrated the powerful effects that love can have on the behavior and development of an individual. Harlow revealed the importance of love for healthy childhood development by showing the adverse effects of deprivation on young rhesus monkeys. “Deprivation of comfort and love caused digestive problems and psychological distress in the monkeys” explains Harlow. Results show that love and affection could be primary needs as necessary as food or water, showing a new perspective on the nature of love.

Jane Traupmann and colleagues conducted another study exploring the effects of intimacy on mental and physical health. “It is not surprising that those who were happier and more satisfied in their relationships showed lower levels of depression, anxiety, and self-consciousness”, Traupmann says.  This suggests that intimacy could protect against depression and anxiety.

Love on physical health

Research demonstrates that love, compassion, and joy improve the functioning of our immune system and help us battle diseases. Supportive relationships have even been shown to improve prognoses in conditions such as cancer by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. It has also been reported that those who are married are happier, live longer, drink less alcohol and have less doctor’s appointments than single people. “All is not lost if you are not in love, though – research has also shown that strong relationships with friends and family improve health outcomes as much as quitting smoking or quitting drinking do.

Endorphins are the key. According to the National Institute of Health, love triggers the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel good. It also lowers the levels of stress chemicals in our system. Physical contact like cuddles, hugs, and kisses trigger the production of oxytocin,” said Jodi Prohofsky, Ph.D., L.M.F.T.

Love can have positive effects on our mental and physical health. It can lead to better ability to cope with stress, lower risks of depression and anxiety and even better physical health. For those not in love– friendship has also been shown to have a positive effect on your health. All of the benefits of loving relationships make it easy to see why love is so important to so many people and why this time of year is celebrated in many countries around the world.

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