Love on the Brain

An excellent article I feel compelled to post in full (also, it was forwarded to me by my brother without any other citation information. Sorry!):

December 13, 2006, 9:02 pm
Love on the Brain
By Daniel Goleman
A radio interviewer in Dublin recently asked me why, in my view, people in Ireland were no happier now that their booming economy had brought them a sudden tide of prosperity. In answering, I cited well-known data showing that once people leave poverty and are able to satisfy their basic needs, there is little to no correlation between earnings and happiness. Or as the Beatles put it, “Money can’t buy me love.”

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist at Princeton, has explained the paradox of the unhappy rich in terms of “the hedonic treadmill”: as we earn more income, our material expectations ratchet inexorably upward, so there’s never enough money. The chase for ever more expensive pleasures never ends. As a result, the rich end up needing more to be as satisfied as the poor are with less money and lower expectations.

In 2004, Kahneman reported data from a survey of 2000 women showing that good personal relationships – far more than money – determine how satisfied people are with their lives.

The emerging field of social neuroscience, which studies how people’s brains operate during interactions with others, is beginning to explain Kahneman’s conclusions. Satisfying relationships, it seems, have powerful effects on brain function, particularly the neural centers for pleasure.

Consider, for instance, research that has been done on attraction. Neuroscientists scanned the brains of men while they looked at photos of various women. Only when a man looked at a woman who was attractive to him and appeared to be looking him straight in the eye (as if she were interested in him, too) did his brain secrete a dose of dopamine, a brain chemical that delivers pleasure. If the man was not drawn to the woman, or when her eyes looked elsewhere, there were no molecules of joy.

At University College London, researchers recruited men and women who were “truly, deeply and madly” in love to have their brains imaged while they looked at photos of their romantic partners. As the subjects gazed at the pictures, their brains lit up neural areas that also activate during another kind of euphoria: narcotic addiction. Apparently, the intense happiness of romance owes much of its ecstasy to the same brain receptors that respond to opiates. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, proposes that a couple falling in love go through the neural equivalent of forming an addiction – to each other.

That is not the only kind of neurochemical thrill love can provide. Another is the pleasant buzz we get from oxytocin. This potent chemical floods a mother’s brain after childbirth and while she nurses her baby. But oxytocin is more than a molecule of motherly love: it surges, too, in both men and women after orgasm.

Freud found parallels between a mother with her baby and the physical intimacy of lovers. Both kinds of pairs immerse themselves in skin-on-skin nuzzling and kissing, with a resultant euphoria. Perhaps oxytocin is the neurochemical key to the pleasures of a good cuddle. Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, a Swedish neuroendocrinologist, postulates that we get a goodly dose of oxytocin any time we engage affectionately with someone we like. In effect, people having a good time together stir the release of oxytocin in each other’s brains.

The neurochemical pleasures of feeling connected to our loved ones, Panksepp has found, also operate in other mammals: lab rats, like humans, prefer to be with others with whom they have savored the brain’s natural doses of oxytocin and opioids. This neurotransmitter-induced serenity may be part of what cements our friendships and family ties. Repeated good times with loved ones create a kind of Pavlovian conditioning, until simply thinking about them triggers a bit of the oxytocin we would feel in their presence. Small wonder that office workers paper their cubicles with photos of family and friends.

Back in the 19th century, Walt Whitman summed it up in his ode to human connection, “I Sing the Body Electric”:

…To be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, To be
surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is
enough… I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in the sea…
All things please the soul, but these things please the soul well.

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