"It takes no time to fall in love, but it takes years to know what love is."
Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz
Romance is a hot topic, something the romance novel industry knows something about as it brings in a whopping 1 billion annually. We are interested in keeping romance alive, yet while time passes most relationship will be plagued with the romance blues. Researcher, Helen Fisher, details her findings in the Chemistry of Love. Fisher’s research explores the various neuro-hormonal pathways of love, the longevity of such chemicals, and theorizes the idea of a love map.
Many factors are contributory toward the decline and the rate at which couples may experience the diminishing romantic feelings, such as each partner’s sexual constitution, lifestyle, health, finances, work schedule, children, living situation, religion, etc. Also, one’s expression of romance is important to understand to ensure that their love language is conveyed in a way that is received.
Bottom line is we are wired to connect. Within a very complex neural network, we have a reward motivational system that is activated when we encounter a potential mate. This juices up the system with dopamine and norepinephrine. This system gives us the craving for that person leading to focused attention, obsessive thinking, and euphoria. We may relate to this as “the fall”. Serotonin which helps regulate moods, emotions, sleep and appetite drops during this phase, which causes the lack of appetite, reduced sleep and emotions and moods that feel uncontrollable. Our bonding hormone, Oxytocin ensures the attachment and provides the peace and calm we feel when in their presence. Of course, testosterone needs mentioning as this propels us into the pursuit and desire for sex. Once sexual activity takes place, these hormones and neurotransmitters go into overdrive to essentially ensure procreation and pair bonding. However, there is the caveat. It’s a short-lived experience. It’s essentially not sustainable.
The question becomes how to create sustainability and satisfaction for both partners. First and foremost, hormones levels are important to know as hormone replacement may be all it takes to ignite the desire and pursuit of romance. Of course, communicating wants and needs is fundamental to a healthy bonded relationship. Stella Resnick, PhD., a leading researcher in keeping the spark alive in long-term relationships, says there are three distinct behaviors these couples exhibit with each other. First, they eye gaze and attune to their partner. Secondly, they touch each other and hold hands often. Lastly, they have continued kissing one another throughout their relationship. As a sexuality counselor, these behavior are usually absent from couples I see. Training in these behaviors alone, gives the kick start. From there, scheduling dates, doing activities together that arouse a sense of excitement and fun together, and mostly, it’s the true desire to want to engage with each other with an authentic and connecting approach.
Over the past 25 years, Neuroscience is exponentially growing elucidating the positive influence meditation has on our health. Cultivating constructive qualities of mind such as lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, and empathy, continue to provide very rich data of the neuro-hormonal activations that occur essentially priming our systems with good health. Multiple brain regions are involved in the generating the embodied process of these mental states. Studies are often cross-linking, reporting many of the same brain area activations that stimulate the nervous system, giving us the elixir of well-being.
Last year, the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Research Institute released a research paper, Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Eminent Neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Demasio was one of the researchers, which brought my attention to this article.
The study hypothesized that brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment, and theory of mind would be activated. These areas are seen to be activated in the above mentioned mind states as well. In eliciting the quality of gratitude, various scenarios drawn from the Holocaust were told to the participants. Stories ranged from being given food, a place to sleep, and someone saving their life. Participates were asked to put themselves into that experience (which is an empathic experience) and rate their level of gratitude, 1-rating lower level of gratitude and 4-rating high.
There were 26 participants, none of which had any connection to the Holocaust. The overall rating was 2.6. The participants stated they felt as if they could live in the experience that the Holocaust survivor had lived and the gratitude that must have been felt. As researchers hypothesized, the area of the Prefrontal Cortex, the seat of moral cognition, was activated, as well as, regions associated with prosocial behavior, interpersonal relationships, and social support.
Gratitude considered a virtue in all religions, does appear to have a place in the brain. With the stimulus of imagining a scenario to elicit gratitude, we can activate the center of moral cognition affiliated with positive emotion and mental well-being. While many of us know the felt sense of practicing gratitude, this study, demonstrates the neurological correlates. Also remembering, our brains are neuroplastic, therefore, what we fixate on wires neurons, for better or worse.
We are wired to experience gratitude as this study suggests. Our brain circuitry has gifted us with a byproduct of gratitude when we have benefited from the goodwill of another, imagined or real. Not only that, but he next byproduct of this experience is resiliency, emotional stability, and well-being. Amazing, how we are gifted again.
With gratitude and may all being know gratitude.
Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
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