The science of love and what we learn from it
The science of love may seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, science is associated with the empirical and the observable. But love, at least in popular culture, is the world of infatuation, romance and emotion.
From the pages of Mills and Boon to the scripts of romantic comedy, love is portrayed as an irresistible feeling. The experience of falling in love is the stuff of poetry, song and art.
It is not something open to measurement or analysis.
For years, marriage educators have worked with these stereotypes, hoping to enlighten couples about the long and often rocky pathway of love. As couples in every long-term relationship know, the wild enthusiasm of infatuation soon dulls into the realism of day-to-day life together. Habits that once delighted now annoy; behaviours that were fascinating are now incomprehensible; attitudes that were novel often grate.
The changes were attributed to personality differences, the journey from the early days of romance to realism, and the inevitable power struggle that manifests itself when two people share an intimate life together.
Understanding attitudes and expectations, addressing conflict, and learning better patterns of communication were adopted as strategies to strengthen relationships.
Recently, science has come to the aid of those wishing to better understand human interaction and assist couples on their pathway to lifelong marriage. In particular, new discoveries about the working of the brain inform us about the age-old desire to create loving and lasting marriages.
First, we have learnt that the stages of infatuation and romance, followed by realism and a power struggle are not simply a social description, but a reflection of chemical and hormonal changes in our bodies.
In particular, the production of the chemicals phenylethylamine, dopamine and noradrenaline in the limbic region of the brain create the euphoria we know as ‘falling in love’.
These chemicals also suppress the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our emotional reactions, especially those that set off the warning systems of fight or flight.
The presence in women of a more robust system of oxytocin – the chemical of trust and bonding –may also help to explain the different patterns of commitment and sacrifice between men and women.
As the marital researcher, Scott Stanley, suggests: long term commitment varies significantly between men and women, often to the detriment of women early in relationships, until men catch-up in their commitment behaviour.
Secondly, neuroscientists have discovered that neurons in the brain can actually mirror actions that we observe in somebody else, including our partner. These mirror neurons make emotions contagious, heighten our social skills, and assist our learning.
They can draw us closer to another person, expressing compassion and empathy, or push us apart with distrust and rejection. The emotion expressed on another’s face enables us to sense their state of mind and resonate with their feelings.
Understanding how this occurs is powerful knowledge in the quest to better relate to another person. Some scientists and therapists believe that this new knowledge will enable us to harness the power of the brain to strengthen marital relationships.
Thirdly, is new knowledge about gender differences: for example, testosterone in men breaks down connections between the hemispheres, while estrogen in women builds connections, therefore having implications for some of the different ways men and women think and reason. Given the speed of coupling these days, an awareness of how ‘hormonal’ trust and self-giving may cloud judgments - especially for women, early in relationships – may prove helpful.
Our knowledge will increase as scientists continue to explore the workings of the brain in coming years. Hopefully, it will help us to better understand and manage human relationships.
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