Huey Lewis sang about “The Power of Love.” Now a relatively new field called interpersonal neurobiology is proving your brain is constantly in a state of being rewired based on life and love. And the basis of it all is our interpersonal relationships; those contacts we love deeply, and those we love, well, a whole lot less.
The thought is that all our relationships change our brains. The hard wiring may not really be that hard wired after all. From our first reactions following birth with our mothers, brain scans reveal an unspoken bond between mother and child that imprints his or her brain so powerfully that many of our future relationships evolve from it.
But this new science suggests that the story is far from over at birth. Sure, heredity plays a part, and childhood engraves an etching in our minds, but we now know through imaging studies that friendships, love affairs, romance and love also wield a powerful imprint on our minds; a longing for our initial intimacy with our mother puts us in a an unending quest for an adult equivalent.
How powerful is this quest? Potent enough to influence how our genes express themselves. And this is where the impact on health and wellbeing comes in. Relationships that are caring and loving have the most significant ability to affect our brains by affecting our mental health, our happiness, our wisdom and even our medical health and longevity. All that from being in a loving and supportive relationship. In fact, positive relationships may be the most important predictor of these positive life experiences throughout our lives.
If you think about it, when we choose our mate, we are also choosing a new group of friends and family, new perspectives, new rituals, foods and favorite places. All of these experiences plus the hormones that come with passion and excitement are believed to be a major way in which our brains are altered and rewired, and our health and perspective are affected. In essence, the other person imprints our brain and forever alters it. Thinking back to who we were before we met our mate, it certainly makes sense. Who doesn’t feel “changed” after living with and loving someone for a long time. Like Cole Porter said, “I’ve got you under my skin.” What the interpersonal neurobiologists add is, “…and I’ve absorbed you.”
New brain studies by Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA showed that when a person feels rejected, the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex of their brains “light up” in the same areas as the brains of persons experiencing physical pain. It’s why as the song goes, “breaking up is hard to do.” Her studies also showed the opposite for those that are close and who give support to a loved one; giving also stimulates the pleasure centers of the giver’s brain. Related work by James Coen of the University of Virginia showed that the negative impact of giving a mild electric shock to a woman who is in a happy, committed relationship will produce much less of an impact on her anxiety, pain and blood pressure is she is holding her partner’s hand.
So mad and passionate sex isn’t the only way to warm our hearts; sometimes just the feeling the support of a held hand as we face life’s sometime challenging journey will do the trick. All because our brains transform that support into insulation for the “shocks” life sends our way. Stormy relationships do not get this protective effect from handholding or being supported.
I remember my wife taking a favorite photo of the two of us into labor and delivery when she was in labor with our first child, and a photo of our first child into labor and delivery when she was in labor with our second child. Looking at those photos was a great comfort to her. Now functional MRI or fMRI as it is called is able to show that images of loved ones can light up the reward centers of our minds. Even more impressive are studies that show the brains of couples that are madly in love light up the same areas of their brains as cocaine addicts do, with the exception that cocaine addicts also light up the areas of anxiety and fear whereas those in love demonstrate calmness in the brain areas associated with anxiety and fear. The brains of those in love also light up areas linked to pleasure and pain relief.
So what does this all mean for you and me? Quite a lot, it seems. Our brains can change as we grow and as we grow old – for the better or for the worse. To take advantage of this new information, we must shed bad relationships and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones – people who make us feel safe and loved like a mother makes her baby feel. It’s one of the major paths to a healthy relationship and to a healthy you. I’ve made a few additional comments in my video below. Find more of my videos on http://www.YouTube.com/DoctorSeibel.
Machelle (Mache) Seibel, MD is one of America’s top health communicators. Whether speaking, consulting, writing or composing he teaches people the health information they need and the perspective they require to stay well. His passion is to help America stay well. “It’s better to stay well than to get well.” Professor and Director, Complicated Menopause Program, University of Massachusetts Medical School 2004-Present Founder of HealthRock®, reshaping health education with music and entertainment Harvard Medical School faculty nearly two decades Past Medical Director, Inverness Medical Innovations (now Alere) 2008 Recipient, Ashbel Smith Distinguished Alumnus Award, the University of Texas Medical Branch’s highest honor Multiple national awards for research, writing, music and patient education received Author/editor 14 books, over 200 scientific articles, past editor-in-chief of the medical journal Sexuality, Reproduction & Menopause Advisory board of Dr. Mehmet Oz’s HealthCorps initiative to fight childhood obesity Repeatedly voted into Best Doctors in America Hosted PBS and NYC TV episodes, frequent media expert http://www.doctorseibel.com/
Read more from VividLife.me bloggers:
Twenty years ago during a particularly stressful period of work, I began taking a yoga class as a non-pharmacologic antidote. I was running a center for reproduction and women’s health, working 24/7 and needed a way to relax. I had the good fortune to enroll with a yogini named Hari Khar Khalsa, and I took classes from her for a period of time. One day after class I asked her if she would be interested in teaching a yoga class to my patients to lower their stress. We began a series of yoga classes with the first hour consisting of us sitting on mats on the floor with my patients and discussing a health topic. I called them “Mat Chats.” The second hour was devoted to yoga with a focus on the medical topic we had just covered.
One of the most common concerns among breast cancer patients is how to deal with hot flashes. They are a huge problem that affects the quality of life for over half of women treated with endocrine treatments. In fact, hot flashes are the number one reason they think about stopping treatment. HRT is very effective but it can almost never be used due to risk. So I want to share some of the alternative treatments to HRT for you to discuss with your doctors. There are also many women who don’t have breast cancer who either can’t or don’t want to take HRT for the low estrogen symptom of hot flashes. This will help you as well.