Ask anyone who lived through the 1960s what they learned about “love, love, love,” and they might tell you, with varying degrees of nostalgia and/or cynicism, that the big message was that love was all we needed, and that uptight academics in the ivory towers who analyzed it to death needed to get out of their heads, man.
I’m a product of that era, and I also happen to be a neuropsychologist. So I find it fascinating that some of the lessons we learned in our “decade of love” are actually supported by the latest scientific research. Which leads to my…
Top 10 Love Lessons That Stand the Test of Time — and Neuroscience
- Communal living is a gas: Having healthy interdependent relationships (friends, family, etc.) has been shown to be one of the single most important factors in well-being throughout one’s life. There’s even a study showing that you respond to potential pain in more resilient ways if you’re holding the hand of a loved one than when you’re holding the hand of a stranger. (There's less activation of deep brain areas involved in responding to threat, in effect giving you a higher threshold.)
- We got to love one another right now: Acts of kindness trigger changes in mood—in the giver and the receiver. It can also decrease your stress and its negative side effects. Cardiac rehab patients who were volunteers in a program helping others showed improved heart health; volunteers among cancer survivors not only demonstrated improved mood, but also longer survival rates. There’s even evidence that it really is the thought that counts: Buddhist mindfulness practice is associated with brain benefits as well. Imaging studies (such as one in 2008 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) show that people who practiced lovingkindness meditation had increased activity in parts of the brain that control empathy, response to emotion and the ability to distinguish someone else’s thoughts and emotions from their own.
- Don’t bring me down: Social inclusiveness turns out to be a good thing not just for our self-esteem but for the brain and body as well. Studies since 2003 have been showing that the pain of social rejection runs along the same neural pathways and is experienced in the brain in much the same way as the pain of a broken leg, which in turn ramps up a cascade of stress hormones.
- Happiness is a warm puppy: The unconditional love of a furry pet affords us more than happiness. Researchers are collecting evidence that the benefits of interacting with (and especially petting) a dog include a release of health-supporting hormonal shifts, such as decreases in the stress hormone cortisol and increases in feel-good serotonin and oxytocin.
- United we stand: Neuroscientists talk about the value of an integrated brain, in which neither raw emotions nor rigid intellectual thinking dominate but work together and inform one another. Then, with this integration, there tends to be a perspective shift from “me” to “we.” A more integrated brain may well lead to better interpersonal relationships—as well as a better integrated global community. Folks like meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness-and-the-brain expert Richard Davidson talk about the benefits of a “we’re in this together” approach to well-being, citing evidence-based support from neuroscience research. One way that brain integration seems to be increased is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
- Make love, not war: Intense, distressing emotional states such as fear or rage (which are largely associated with the limbic structures deep in the right hemisphere of the brain) are a normal and essential part of being alive. Yet when they predominate, they take a serious toll on your nervous and endocrine systems. Some of us have more of a right-hemisphere tendency toward withdrawal, avoidance, negative thinking and other depressive symptoms; others have a greater tendency toward positive moods: curious, tending to approach new things, and positive thinking. Richard Davidson, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, has shown that each of us has an emotional “set point” for our ratio of positive to negative moods Affective neuroscience research shows that you can shift your brain’s emotional “set point” from the right hemisphere to the left, which is associated with less fear and more desire to connect.
- Get by with a little help from your friends: Self-awareness is another feature of integrated brain pathways and an important ingredient in life satisfaction. It’s also a prerequisite to becoming attuned to the internal state of another in a balanced way, and to be socially connected in meaningful ways, without which we’re likely to have a very lonely existence.
- Meditation is groovy: We know that more grooves is a way to create more complex brain real estate within a reasonably sized skull. (More folds and crinkles mean more surface area, much like a sheet of aluminum foil that’s rolled up into a ball.) A recent study led by Eileen Luders at UCLA reports that long-term meditators show increased “cortical gyrification”—the pattern and degree of undulations and grooves in the brain—particularly in the insula, or insular cortex, the portion of the brain that brings feelings into more conscious awareness. This can allow you to be on emotional autopilot less: We’ve all had those moments when we’ve said something really clueless to our significant other and then asked ourselves, “What was I thinking?!”
- Tune in, turn on, explore new realities: Novel experiences stimulate the growth of new synaptic connections in the brain and maintain well being. That said, getting there with the help of hallucinogens doesn’t seem to count: Apparently the experiences need to be driven by the conscious brain, particularly areas involving attention and initiation.
- Free love is far-out: Far off-base, actually. This one, at least the sexual bed-hopping or short-term serial monogamy versions of it, was a bust. It turns out that random sex or brief attachments with relative strangers aren’t what keep our brains or our health at our best. One study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology shows that having a secure adult attachment style, in which you can maintain an enduring, mutually loving connection rather than playing musical beds, is healthier. It was associated with lower stress and better regulation of the HPA axis, a key component of the endocrine system, which manages your reaction to stress and regulates your immune system, your mood and emotions, sexuality, digestion, energy level and even weight.
John Lennon, one of the great spokespeople of the ’60s, was prescient when he said, “If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the '60s, that's his problem.” Right on.
Marsha Lucas, Ph.D, is a neuropsychologist in Washington, D.C., and the author of Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness.