By Dr. Michael Merzenich
Is love a mystery or can it be reduced to chemical processes in the brain? And, what are those chemical processes? And, perhaps most importantly, can you prepare the brain for love?
Falling in Love
When you are falling in love a kind of chemical bomb goes off in the brain. There’s a chemical storm of dopamine and noradrenaline that makes you feel excited and warm all over.
Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with reward. It gets released when I receive something wonderful from you – as I do in the association we call love – or, when I have the pleasure of giving you something. Love is a mutual giving and receiving of something very wonderful.
The noradrenaline is released due to the newness and excitement of it all. It makes you feel brighter and more alive. There is almost no time in your life when you feel more alive than when you are falling in love.
Craving the Beloved
As the relationship deepens, the pleasure that you associate with love makes you crave more.
One of the wonderful things about dopamine is that it is initially only released at the time of the excitement, but then the brain is smart enough to release it in advance of the excitement – in anticipation of the hug, the kiss or the presence of the beloved.
You actually begin to feel warm before the moment of connection. That contributes to you craving it. It becomes an addiction. You want to see that person again – to connect again.
As the relationship matures, it becomes more than the addiction. It becomes an attachment, which really arises from two sources.
The first one is that when you really connect with someone — when you are really rewarded by being in that person’s presence — the brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin contributes to the feeling that the person with you is a trusted person, a person who should be part of you. A chemical bonding occurs. It’s the same kind of bonding as between a mother and child. It occurs between two people who are so positively and continuously connected that they form a chemical bond, when they are together and when they think of one another.
There’s a second critical thing that is happening. When you grow your own sense of self, you grow it by self-reference. When I feel something, when I act, when I think, I am continuously associating that feeling, act, or thought to its source, and that source is me, and from that I create my self. But, the same processes work to create a strong attachment to anything that is positively and strongly close to you. And, what is closer to you, what is stronger to you, than someone you love? The consequence of that is that your brain — through it plasticity — grows that person that you love into yourself. That person becomes a part of you. Ultimately, you are bonded, you are wedded in your brain — just as you may be wedded in life.
Preparing the Brain for Love
First of all, you want to exercise the machinery. You want to make sure the machinery is in a powerful form that controls the release of noradrenaline and dopamine. You do that by living a life full of excitement, surprises, challenges, and interesting moments. You want to live a life that is full of reward.
The way you can control the delivery of reward is by you being the rewarder. By you being the generous agent. Every time you are kind to someone, every time you are sympathetic to someone, you release dopamine.
Given my research in building plasticity-based brain exercises, I have to add, that you can use our computerized exercises in BrainHQ, because those exercises work this machinery heavily.
However, you can also exercise this machinery heavily in everyday life — by being a positive, loving, generous person. I strongly recommend that. Live a life full of vitality, full of interesting and surprising things, and be a positive, loving, generous person. And, when love comes your way, you’ll be fully ready to respond to it.
Of course, you can also just wait to be struck through the heart by that arrow from Cupid — somewhere out there — waiting to surprise you. Because that can happen too. Be ready for the surprise. And, for love.
Dr. Merzenich is often credited with discovering lifelong plasticity, with being the first to harness plasticity for human benefit (in his co-invention of the cochlear implant), and for pioneering the field of plasticity-based computerized brain exercise. He is Professor Emeritus at UCSF and a Kavli Laureate in Neuroscience. His current focus is BrainHQ — the world’s most proven brain exercise app. He may be most widely-known for a series of specials on the brain on public television.