The latest episode of SUPER BRAIN on The Chopra Well YouTube channel features a conversation between Deepak Chopra and neuroscientist Rudy Tanzi on love and the brain. If you’re alive and breathing, chances are you have experienced love in your life. Maybe you are in love as we speak. One of the most prevalent and least understood of human emotions, love has intrigued poets, philosophers, scientists, artists, and historians alike for centuries. At this point in our development we know more than ever about the chemistry of attachment and the psychology of affection. But are we any closer to understanding why we love certain people over others, how this experience affects us, and what it all means in the grand scheme? Let’s take a look. (Note: We’ll be limiting this article to an exploration of romantic love.)
There is something perversely unpredictable about love. If you have ever experienced love at first sight, unrequited love, heartbreak, rejection, or passion then you’ll know what we’re talking about. (And we suspect that will include almost everyone.) When a person walks into the room and stops you dead in your tracks, or looks in your eyes and shakes something up in the depths of your soul, the feeling may be intensely and inexplicably “right.” But what is “right” or “true” or “honest” about your love? Why this person over anyone else equally smart, beautiful, kind, or fill-in-the-blank? From an evolutionary perspective, romantic love stems from a mating impulse. We identify the most viable mates who will ensure our successful procreation. But honestly, would anyone in love give you that answer?
As we learn more about the brain and its plasticity, it becomes clear that love cannot solely be a means to an evolutionary end. It changes us too much to be a one lane highway to a single destination. A healthy relationship can promote longevity, overall physical and mental health, and faster recovery from injury and illness. But experiences of heartbreak and rejection can trigger actual physical pain responses in the body, as well. Non-human animals identify mates and, according to the latest research, experience love and its associated emotions (empathy, possessiveness, grief of loss, etc). So as an evolutionary development, love is inefficient and even dangerous. Why would something so critical to our survival make us vulnerable to such crippling pain?
Anthropologist Helen Fisher says love is an addiction. We crave love; we go through withdrawal from love; we relapse into love; we pursue love at all costs. We may be predisposed to develop this addiction, like our pleasure hormones so readily available at the slightest touch and our ability to smell subtle pheromones. But as Deepak and Rudy point out, the brain doesn’t fall in love; we do. Something in us decides to make that first contact, to open our hearts to vulnerability and see our beloved as more than an object of evolutionary necessity. We commit the same follies time and again, but also learn and adjust constantly as we go. No two loves are alike. You might feel as though love just happens to you, mysteriously. But you are the conscious agent that activates what would otherwise only be a seed of possibility. And we choose love, despite its risks, because…well, consider the alternative.
So, those earlier queries aside, it seems the real question is: What will you do with your incredible and innate capacity to love? It’s nothing short of heroic to allow yourself to love. But then again, no one said this life would be easy.
Let us know your thoughts on love in the comments section below!
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