On Love: Neurophysics and Beyond
Spring is in the air, full force.
Around me, everyone is talking about love. Finding love, creating love, expanding self love, losing love, defining love, discovering love.
As Dr. Love, it certainly seems appropriate that I give this subject more consideration. And, I have to say, that love has been such a demonstratively powerful force in my life, that it bears further contemplation. Both as to how it contributes to wellness, how it elevates mind and mood and changes body neurochemistry and neurophysics, and the more mystical mysterious magical aspects.
A KIND OF LOVE
There are so very many different kinds of love. To me, the most profound, and most transformative, is that rare and beautiful “unconditional love.” You may argue, as some have with me, that such a state does not exist. Yet, when using biofeedback devices, the measures that shift and the accompanying state shift of the person’s mind and body when reflecting on unconditional love, is quite something.
The body unfurls and relaxes.
The mind calms and becomes coherent.
The heart generates an ocean of parallel and harmonious waves of peacefulness.
Unconditional love. A love that has no conditions, no expectations. Talked of in spiritual systems. Felt in mystical experiences. Experienced when you are in the presence of a loving animal like a cat, or dog, or horse. Or for some, in the presence of a baby, or your own child, or your grandparent.
Dr. Lawrence Cheng and I co-led a retreat in Hollyhock last year where, during part of the retreat, we discussed Heart Math. Heart Math is the study and application of measuring the electromagnetic field of the heart and using this to both improve heart health and mental state by convincing humans that positive emotions have a direct effect on the physical body.
As we sat around with the group of 25 attendees, we tried the Em-wave biofeedback device on various people. With this device, you want to use your state of mind to move an indicator light out of the red zone, through orange and yellow and into the green zone. It’s interesting, because people may think of an activity they love, or a person, yet it’s when they think of an animal that they feel loves them unconditionally, no matter what they do, that they directly sink right into the green and stay there.
When our hearts are in this “green zone” of positive emotion, heart rate and blood pressure normalize, inflammatory chemicals decrease, body rhythms sync up in a harmonious and balanced wave pattern, and people simply feel good. It’s hard to think negative thoughts or give attention to pessimistic views when in this state. As the heart field is much stronger and larger than the brain’s electromagnetic field, it may be that shifting the field of the heart in this manner, shifts the brain waves, and so shifts thoughts.
Think about it. If you are feeling a very positive emotion, how easy is it to think negative thoughts?
Emotional cognition has been shown to drive our decision making more than pure logic from the front of our brains, from our conscious areas. So this more subconscious land of the various tones and textures of our emotions, is potent. Powerful. Game changing.
Take a moment, right now. Imagine that you are immersed in an experience where you are feeling unconditionally loved for who you are. All your faults and all your gifts. All your joys and all your fears. Loved in totality. Without having to do anything. Say anything. Be anything or anyone. Close your eyes and savour that feeling for just a few moments. Breathe it in deeply.
NEUROPHYSICS OF LOVE
Neurophysics is a specific area of study in physics that looks at how the nervous system changes at a molecular level. Neurophysics includes MRI studies of the brain and brain mapping, and EEG studies of brainwaves.
When scanning the brain using functional MRI, which looks at movement in the brain, we see several patterns related to romantic love. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex activates when you assess someone as attractive. This then sends out a cascade of electrical energy in the brain, lighting up areas for reward, motivation, emotion, and social function. The longer a person has been in love, the more brain activity is seen (1).
Researchers have also considered how romantic love compares to addiction. Although both light up reward and motivation centres, romantic love leads to prosocial behaviour and boosts oxytocin, our bonding chemical, whereas addiction to substances leads to loss of cognitive control and drops in oxytocin levels. In this research study, giving oxytocin actually decreased “tolerance”. Tolerance is the need to use always more and more of a substance in order to get the same high as a person used to get on a smaller amount of a substance. So, therefore, perhaps human connection and release of oxytocin can help decrease the vicious cycle of addiction (2). If a loving connection can do this for addiction to illicit substances, one wonders how much a healthy loving connection can do for “lesser” addictions to negative kinds of food, or mental habits, etcetera.
This diagram from Scientific American is a useful summary of some key changes in the brain in love. It shows how passionate romantic love, versus other kinds of love, activates the brain and neurochemical systems (3):
Unconditional love has not been studied as much as romantic love. Generally, unconditional love has been studied by looking at the brain activity in mothers as they gaze at their infant children. A neural architecture related to these studies has been identified (4). Unconditional love has also been studied as it connects to Loving Kindness Meditation. Loving Kindness Meditation which focuses on creating a state of compassion and unconditional love, creates changes in the brain with beneficial increases in “gray matter” - the brain cells that fire quickly (5). EEG studies between mothers and their babies, have also showed that the brainwave patterns match up and sync, like two mini-oceans that find the same rhythm. EEG rhythms for positive emotions are starting to be studied in more detail (6).
ON LOVE: BEYOND
“Beyond” is one of my new favourite words.
In our detailed, multi-faceted, mysterious lives on this gorgeous planet, we know a lot through science yet also don’t know a lot. This area of the unknown fascinates me endlessly.
Why do you think of someone suddenly, and then they call you, in that moment? How is that two people keep meeting randomly in a large city, yet two people never run into each other in a small town? How do you know when someone is staring at you? Why, when you had an image in your meditation of a person, do you then meet that person in real life and have a profound experience?
This is the realm of the unknown. The unexplained. The mystical.
Our society is going through an increased craving for the mysterious, magical, mystical and ecstatic realms of experience. In the Age of Information, there is now a passion for experiencing what lies beyond the realms of scientific explanation.
We crave connection, elevated states of consciousness, and transcendent states that add more meaning to our lives. Experiences that enrich our moment to moment living with excitement, newness, awe, wonder, joy - adding a bejewelled texture glittering its wisdom to the majesty of our days.
And love, many kinds of love, is part of this realm of the magical and mysterious.
How do two future best friends meet, and then fall in “friend love” to be bosom buddies for years and years? Perhaps you have had that kind of magnetic attraction to a friend of yours. Ken Page would call this an attraction of inspiration instead of an attraction of deprivation, and would say this is because you intuitively honour each others’ core gifts (7).
What makes one connection with a person imbued with such strength, surety, depth, and beauty almost instantaneously, unfold over time and space into living proof of that initial feeling accurate, whereas another connection that sparks and rapidly extinguishes?
How does a connection that logically should promote stability and harmony not flourish as expected?
What creates harmony with our loved ones? Amir Levine might say it is the difference in attachment patterns. However, I’m not convinced that it is always that simple, although he and Rachel Heller certainly have some good guidance on how to foster a secure connection and recognize connection-disrupting behaviours (8).
How does disharmony continually happen with another despite all efforts to create peace? is there a way to find harmony by constantly practicing compassion or are some connections simply meant to be discontinued? What does this look like in terms of world peace?
These are questions that can not always be answered through science, through chemistry, through biology, or through therapy. There is more to life that the molecules of our body. And here, I am not going to answer any questions. I am simply going to invite you to consider and contemplate.
Contemplation . . .
Where in your life now, do you feel a mystery, a magic, a beautiful unknown in your experience with a kind of love with another? Savour this. The unknown. The beauty and possibility. This moment in time. Beautiful exchanges from the past with this person, and the gratitude for the presence of the person in your life in the present moment.
Consider a close friend who has been constant and has so enriched your life. Feel how your heart glows with the thought of this person. Allow that state to deepen.
Have you been in the presence of an animal that has consistently, day after day, given you a beautiful feeling of love and appreciation? An unconditional love. Imagine you are with that animal now. Feel how it feels in the centre of your chest to fully receive and experience that love. Steep, in that love. How do you feel?
What would it be like to have “a stable heart and home”? This is one of my favourite meditations. That no matter the challenges that you face with those you live intimately with, that you, in the future, somehow, somewhere, experience a stable heart and home - where you know you can be loving, vulnerable, gentle, tender, and passionate, and feel loved, cared for, understood, and appreciated, on a daily level - that this is a held and shared value in your most intimate home. What would that feel like? Let your body feel that feeling.
When have you felt a mystical experience of love? Where you transcended time and space, you felt transported, you felt magical and alight, and deeply true to your nature and deeply inspired. Perhaps a feeling of timelessness entered the moment, and all time stood still as you were caught in the spell of the sensuous love pulse of your body and mind and heart, in a mysterious embrace of something more, something that inspired awe. Take a moment to feel this. Sense this. Experience this in metaphor from all the senses: vision, sound, smell, touch, taste, in your mind’s eye, your imagination.
And one last little imaginative pearl . . . perhaps a state of love can live in your heart, and you can feel this like a soft rose petal, floating, in the centre of your heart. Held in focus, from moment to moment. And when you feel hurt, perhaps it is like this petal is momentarily crushed and releases a little perfume, showing you what matters most deeply to you. And the perfume is full of such beauty, that it outlives in the mind any memory or idea of the protective aspect of a rose’s thorn being stronger.
And so, the rose petal is a metaphor for how our softness, our tenderness, even though we fear that it can be crushed and may be injured or disappear, actually lives on with so much more enduring beauty, than the hardness or thorns that we may use to protect us.
Wishing you experiences of soft rose petals and fragrant understandings . . .
Wishing you the best, always,
~ Dr. Maia
d’Oleire Uquillas F et al. Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2015.
Zou, Zhiling et al. Romantic love versus drug addiction may inspire a new treatment for addiction. Front Psychol. 2016
Fischetti, Mark. Your Brain in Love. Scientific American. 2011
Beauregard, Mario et al. The neural basis of unconditional love. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. 2009
Leung, Mei-Kei et al. Increased grey matter volume in the right angular and posterior parahippocampal gyro in loving-kindness meditators. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2013.
Hu, Xin et al. EEG correlates of ten positive emotions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2017
Ken Page. Deeper Dating: how to drop the games of seduction and discover the power of intimacy (book). 2015
Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Attached, the new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love. (book) 2012