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The New Science of Love (from the Book “Love Sense”)

Fri, Mar 14, 2014

Books, News, Pop Culture, Research

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The new book Love Sense by clinical psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson tries to take some of the mystery out of that big emotion. While that may not sound very romantic, Johnson is dedicated to the scientific exploration of love so that we may have better, more-fulfilling, more intimate long-term relationships — especially in a world where independence, isolation and non-monogamy are growing more common. Her book offers real-life examples and practical exercises, based on the Emotionally Focused Therapy she developed in her own practice. Last week we featured the first part of Chapter 1 on the history of love; below is the next section, which lists the recent findings in the latest scientific research on love.

 

Love Sense” by Dr. Sue Johnson

from Chapter 1: Revolution

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines revolution as “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something: a change of paradigm.” And that is exactly what has happened to adult love in the field of social sciences. Two decades ago, love didn’t get much respect as a topic of study. No emotion did. René Descartes, the French philosopher, associated feelings with our lower animal nature and thus considered them something to be overcome. What marked us as superior animals was our ability to reason. Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am,” he famously proclaimed.

Emotions were not rational and therefore suspect. And love was the most irrational and suspect of all, thus not a fit subject for scientists, the supreme rationalists. Scan the subject index of professor Ernest Hilgard’s exhaustive historical review Psychology in America, published in 1993, and you won’t find the word love. Young researchers were routinely warned off the topic. I remember being told in graduate school that science does not deal with nebulous, soft indefinables, such as emotion, empathy, and love.

The word revolution also means “an uprising.” Social scientists began to recognize that much of their work was not addressing public concerns about the quality of everyday life. So a quiet movement, without riots or bullets, began in campus laboratories and academic journals, challenging the orthodox adherence to studies of simple behaviors and how to change them. New voices began to be heard, and suddenly, in the 1990s, emotions emerged as legitimate topics of inquiry. Happiness, sorrow, anger, fear—and love—started appearing on the agenda of academic conferences in a multitude of disciplines, from anthropology to psychology to sociology. Feelings, it was becoming apparent, weren’t random and senseless, but logical and “intelligent.”

At the same time, therapists and mental health professionals began adjusting their frame of reference in dealing with relationship issues, especially romantic ones. For years they had focused their attention on the individual, believing that any turmoil could be traced back to a person’s own troubled psyche. Fix that and the relationship would improve. But that wasn’t what was happening. Even when individuals grasped why they acted a certain way and tried to change, their love relationships often continued to sour.

Therapists realized that concentrating on one person didn’t give a complete picture. People in love relationships, just as in all relationships, are not distinct entities, acting independently; they are part of a dynamic dyad, within which each person’s actions spark and fuel reactions in the other. It was the couple and how the individuals “danced” together that needed to be understood and changed, not simply the individual alone. Researchers began videotaping couples recounting everyday hurts and frustrations, arguing over money and sex, and hassling over child-rearing issues. They then pored over these recordings, hunting for the critical moments of interaction when a relationship turned into a battlefield or wasteland. They kept an eye open, too, for moments when couples seemed to reach harmonious accord. And they looked for patterns of behavior.

Interest in emotions in general, and love in particular, also surged among “hard” scientists as advances in technology refined old tools and introduced new ones. A major hurdle to investigations had always been: How do you pin down something as vague and evanescent as a feeling? Or, as Albert Einstein lamented: “How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”

The scientific method depends not only on observation and analysis but also on measurable, reproducible data. With the arrival of more sensitive tests and assays, neurobiologists launched inquiries into the chemistry of emotions. But the big push came with the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Neurophysiologists devised experiments that peer into the brain and actually see structures and areas lighting up when we are afraid, or happy, or sad—or when we love. Remember the old public service announcement showing an egg frying in a pan while a voice intones, “This is your brain on drugs”? Now we have films that actually do capture “This is your brain on love.”

The result of all this ferment has been an outpouring of fresh knowledge that is coalescing into a radical and exciting new vision of love. This new love sense is overthrowing long-held beliefs about the purpose and process of romantic love as well as our sense of the very nature of human beings. The new perspective is not only theoretical but also practical and optimistic. It illuminates why we love and reveals how we can make, repair, and keep love.

Among the provocative findings:

The first and foremost instinct of humans is neither sex nor aggression. It is to seek contact and comforting connection. 

The man who first offered us this vision of what we now call attachment or bonding was an uptight, aristocratic English psychiatrist, not at all the kind of man you would expect to crack the code of romantic relationships! But John Bowlby, conservative and British, was nevertheless a rebel who changed the landscape of love and loving forever. His insights are the foundation on which the new science of love rests.

Bowlby proposed that we are designed to love a few precious others who will hold and protect us through the squalls and storms of life. It is nature’s plan for the survival of the species. Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence. “In uniting the beloved life to ours we can watch over its happiness, bring comfort where hardship was, and over memories of privation and suffering open the sweetest fountains of joy,” wrote George Eliot.

This drive to bond is innate, not learned. It likely arose as nature’s answer to a critical fact of human physiology: the female birth canal is too narrow to permit passage of big-brained, big-bodied babies that can survive on their own within a short time after birth. Instead, babies enter the world small and helpless and require years of nurturing and guarding before they are self-sustaining. It would be easier to abandon such troublesome newborns than raise them. So what makes an adult stick around and assume the onerous and exhausting task of parenting?

Nature’s solution was to wire into our brains and nerves an automatic call-and-response system that keeps child and parent emotionally attached to each other. Babies come with a repertoire of behaviors—gazing, smiling, crying, smiling, clinging, reach-ing—that draw care and closeness from adults. So when a baby boy bawls from hunger and stretches out his arms, his mom picks him up and feeds him. And when Dad coos or makes funny faces at his baby girl, she kicks her legs, waves her arms, and babbles back. And round and round it goes, in a two-way feedback loop.

Adult romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the one between mother and child. 

We’ve long assumed that as we mature, we outgrow the need for the intense closeness, nurturing, and comfort we had with our caregivers as children and that as adults, the romantic attachments we form are essentially sexual in nature. This is a complete distortion of adult love.

Our need to depend on one precious other—to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us—never dissolves. In fact, it endures, as Bowlby put it, “from cradle to grave.” As adults, we simply transfer that need from our primary caregiver to our lover. Romantic love is not the least bit illogical or random. It is the continuation of an ordered and wise recipe for our survival.

But there is a key difference: our lover doesn’t have to be there physically. As adults, the need for another’s tangible presence is less absolute than is a child’s. We can use mental images of our partner to call up a sense of connection. Thus if we are upset, we can remind ourselves that our partner loves us and imagine him or her reassuring and comforting us. Israeli prisoners of war report “listening” in their narrow cells to the soothing voices of their wives. The Dalai Lama conjures up images of his mother when he wants to stay calm and centered. I carry my husband’s encouraging words with me in my mind when I walk out on a stage to speak.

Hot sex doesn’t lead to secure love; rather, secure attachment leads to hot sex—and also to love that lasts. Monogamy is not a myth. 

Pick up any men’s or women’s magazine and you’ll find cover lines blaring: seduce him! this sexy move works from 20 feet away; 28 things to try in bed…or in a hammock. or the floor; and sex academy—get an a in giving her an o. In our ignorance, we’ve made physical intimacy the sine qua non of romantic love. As a result, we myopically pour massive amounts of energy and money into spicing up our sex lives. But we have it backwards: it is not good sex that leads to satisfying, secure relationships but rather secure love that leads to good—and, in fact, the best—sex. The growing craze for Internet porn is a catastrophe for love relationships precisely because it negates emotional connection.

It is secure attachment, what nature set us up for, that makes love persist. Trust helps us over the rough places that crop up in every relationship. Moreover, our bodies are designed to produce a cascade of chemicals that bond us tightly to our loved ones. Monogamy is not only possible, it is our natural state.

Emotional dependency is not immature or pathological; it is our greatest strength. 

Dependency is a dirty word in Western society. Our world has long insisted that healthy adulthood requires being emotionally independent and self-sufficient; that we, in essence, draw an emotional moat around ourselves. We talk of being able to separate and detach from our parents, our first loved ones, as a sign of emotional strength. And we look with suspicion at romantic partners who display too much togetherness. We say they are too involved with, too close to, or too dependent on one another. In consequence men and women today feel ashamed of their natural need for love, comfort, and reassurance. They see it as weakness.

Again, this is backwards. Far from being a sign of frailty, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. The surest way to destroy people is to deny them loving human contact. Early studies discovered that 31–75 percent of institutionalized children expired before their third birthday. More recent studies of adopted Romanian orphans, many of whom had spent twenty hours a day unattended in their cribs, found that many suffer from brain abnormalities, impaired reasoning ability, and extreme difficulty in relating to others.

Adults are similarly demolished. Prisoners in solitary confinement develop a complex of symptoms, including paranoia, depression, severe anxiety, hallucinations, and memory loss. They call their experience a “living death.” “When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement,” writes Lisa Guenther, associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, “we deprive [him] of the support of others, which is crucial for a coherent experience of the world.”

The idea that we can go it alone defies the natural world. We are like other animals—we need ties to others to survive. We see it clearly in a multitude of cross-species combinations: in Thailand, a tiger adopts baby pigs; in China, a dog nurses lion cubs; in Colombia, a cat cares for a squirrel; in Japan, a boar carries a baby monkey on its back; and in Kenya, a giant male tortoise fosters a tsunami-orphaned baby hippo.

We, too, as the Celtic saying goes, “live in the shelter of each other.” World War II historians have noted that the unit of survival in concentration camps was the pair, not the individual. Surveys show that married men and women generally live longer than do their single peers.

We need emotional connection to survive. Neuroscience is highlighting what we have perhaps always known in our hearts—loving human connection is more powerful than our basic survival mechanism: fear. We also need connection to thrive. We are actually healthier and happier when we are close and connected. Consistent emotional support lowers blood pressure and bolsters the immune system. It appears to reduce the death rate from cancer as well as the incidence of heart disease and infectious disease. Married patients who have coronary bypass surgery are three times more likely to be alive fifteen years later than their unmarried counterparts. A good relationship, says psychologist Bert Uchino of the University of Utah, is the single best recipe for good health and the most powerful antidote to aging. He notes that twenty years of research with thousands of subjects shows how the quality of our social support predicts general mortality as well as mortality from specific disorders, such as heart disease.

In terms of mental health, close connection is the strongest predictor of happiness, much more so than making masses of money or winning the lottery. It also significantly lessens susceptibility to anxiety and depression and makes us more resilient against stress and trauma. Survivors of 9/11 with secure loving relationships have been found to recover better than those without strong bonds. Eighteen months after the tragedy, they showed fewer signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and less depression. Moreover, their friends considered them more mature and better adjusted than they had been prior to the disaster.

Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people. 

Like Darwin, with his list of reservations, many of us think of love as limiting, narrowing our options and experiences. But it is exactly the reverse. A secure bond is the launching pad for our going out and exploring the unknown and growing as human beings. It is hard to be open to new experiences when our attention and energy are bound up in worry about our safety. It is much easier when we know that someone has our back. Thus fortified, we become imbued with confidence in ourselves and in our ability to handle new challenges. For example, young professional women who are emotionally close to their partners and seek their reassurance are more confident in their skills and more successful at reaching their career goals. It is an ironic paradox: being dependent makes us more independent.

We are not created selfish; we are designed to be empathetic. Our innate tendency is to feel with and for others. 

We are a naturally empathetic species. This part of our nature can be overridden or denied, but we are wired to be caring of others. We are not born callous and competitive, dedicated to our own survival at the expense of others. As biologist Frans de Waal points out, “We would not be here today had our ancestors been socially aloof.” We have survived by caring and cooperating. Our brains are wired to read the faces of others and to resonate with what we see there. It is this emotional responsiveness and ability to work together, not our large, thinking brains alone, that has allowed us to become the most dominant animal on the planet. The more securely connected we are to those we love, the more we tune in and respond to the needs of others as if they were our own. Moral decisions and altruistic actions spring naturally from our emotional connection with others.

The bonds of love are our birthright and greatest resource. They are our primary source of strength and joy. Seeking out and giving support are so vital to human beings that social psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phil Shaver observe that, rather than being called Homo sapiens, or “one who knows,” we should be named Homo auxiliator vel accipio auxilium, or “one who helps or receives help.” To be even more accurate, I say we should be called Homo vinculum—“one who bonds.”

 

from “Love Sense” by Sue Johnson, available on Amazon.com
Copyright (c) 2013 by Sue Johnson. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
 Read the first part of Chapter 1 on the history of love. 
Tune in next week for the next section of Chapter 1!

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One Response to “The New Science of Love (from the Book “Love Sense”)”

  1. Nikki Says:

    “Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”

    This is where I stopped reading. There are so many places I can go to be told I’m deficient, defective, or incomplete because I’m single. I didn’t think this was one of them.

    I don’t know where to begin with the blithe conclusion that monogamy is our natural state. I agree it’s not a myth – it is natural for many people, and successfully and happily practiced by many, but that doesn’t mean those of us for whom it is not innate are unnatural.

    She also takes a very nuclear family view of early humans and child-rearing, and uses that questionable premise to lead her to a lot of other conclusions.


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