The Brain on Love
Definitions on the table
Self Love can mean many things to many people and has been a popular topic in many self-help books. It is something we often know and observe as being of critical importance to our general well being and yet it still eludes a majority of the population.
Since love can actually be quite subjective and ambiguous I thought I would offer a platform of accepted ‘definition’ before diving in.
The Self LOVE I am referring to is generally a part of ‘unconditional love’ and is quite different than the more popular ‘romantic’ version.
affection with no limits or conditions; complete love.
By straight definition, unconditional love can still feel a bit unclear and lend much confusion. So perhaps begin with an investigation of yourself. When you ask yourself what it means to love without any conditions or any limits, what answers do you get? Your idea might actually look different from somebody else because we have each had different experiences of love. But unconditional Love can exist regardless of the circumstances and is as authentic as our ability to offer it with no strings attached.
Since I believe unconditional Love for oneself (self love) is integral in our construction of positive self-esteem I am going to go further and also give a ‘definition’ of self-esteem to aid in bringing self-love into tangible form. Along with this, I would like to suggest that Self Love is a fundamental piece of the positive self-esteem pie. (They are actually synonymous to me so moving forward from the definition I will simply say ‘self love’ which will also include self-esteem.)
Self-esteem is the sum of self-confidence (a feeling of personal capacity) and self-respect (a feeling of personal worth). Self-esteem is a term used to reflect a person’s overall emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. Thus, it affects the way we are and act in the world and the way we relate to everybody else. Nothing in the way we think, feel, decide and act escapes the influence of self-esteem.
People with a healthy (positive) level of self-esteem: Tend to trust their abilities, consider themselves equal in dignity to others, admit and accept different internal feelings whether ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, find enjoyment in many activities in life and are compassionate towards others.
An article in the Oxford Journal said this about the broad spectrum of mental and physical health: “The most basic task for one’s mental, emotional and social health, which begins in infancy and continues until one dies, is the construction of his/her positive self-esteem”
So, the Self Love I am speaking of is critical to overall health, wellness and balanced living and is not related to narcissistic or self-absorbed behaviors. The above overviews of definition can hopefully offer a baseline from which we can understand its essence and move forward into personal exploration.
Bird’s Eye View
We can talk about macronutrients, micronutrients, supplements, balanced meals and how much water to drink in a day but self-love is one of the greatest nourishments and medicine we have. I realize that my writing often returns to or boils down to this essential element but truly it is because I feel it underlies all things. The self-love I speak about is not merely some warm and fuzzy or new age version but one that has all the elements of joy, sweat and tears. It is not convenient nor one-dimensional but a building block that each of us has lost/reclaimed with greater and lesser degree throughout our lives. It is an ingredient for health and well-being that is as essential as the air we breathe and food/water we ingest.
Love in this sense is not just an emotion but rooted in thought, genetics and the influences of history and experience. Self Love cannot be separated from these or isolated as just an emotion. It is part of the brain mapping that underlies most of our development on all levels. This interwoven tapestry of our thoughts, experiences and emotions has direct and tangible affects on our health and how we live.
Research is helping us to understand the impact of these and specifically the role of positive emotions like self–love. Our health and well-being are a complex web of influences of which self-love is one key ingredient. In fact, empirical studies over the last 15 years indicate that self-love is an important psychological factor contributing to health and quality of life. The protective nature of self-love is particularly evident in studies examining stress and/or physical disease in which self-love is shown to safeguard the individual from fear, uncertainty and buffer the impact of stressors (which are a major impairment to health across the board). They found that the level of self-love was a consistent factor in predicting the outcome of a patient after a stroke or could enhance an individual’s ability to cope with disease and post-operative survival. Even more recently we have been finding out exactly how self love/positive esteem changes our brains.
The affects of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ self-thoughts are abundant and varied so I am going to just give an overview of our brains ‘on love’. Needless to say there is plenty of data showing that self-love (positive self-esteem) is some of the best medicine/nutrition for us humans so I will leave you to do more extensive research on your own.
Our Brains On Love
Our development of self-love starts early, actually in utero. From the time we are in our mother’s womb we begin to learn and absorb the deep sense of connection and love inherent in that relationship. Our brains are actually ‘wired’ for love because of this deep connection with mother. It is the essence of unconditional love and what we often refer to as maternal love. It also exists to different degrees regardless of our mother’s parenting skills post birth. Brain scans show that there is actually a synchrony between the brains of mother and child enforcing our sense of this inherent bond (and bonding is part of feeling this basic unconditional love).
After birth, attachment and unconditional ‘parental’ support are significant elements in our development. These early experiences imprint the brain and also set the wiring for self-love, impacting our lifetime’s behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of relationships. This continues throughout childhood and adolescence to create our particular map of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ self-relationship pathways. And because we begin our lives neurally wired for love (from in utero), experiences later in life that are contradictory to this can end up concurrently causing feelings of profound disconnect (along with the impact and repercussions on our neural pathways).
There is ample evidence showing us our unconditional love is based in our neural pathways and showing that it stands apart from other types of love. In one study they looked at the brain imaging of participants who were shown different sets of images either referring to “unconditional love” or “romantic love”. Seven areas of the brain became active when these participants called to mind feelings of unconditional love (three of these were similar to areas that became active when it came to romantic love but the other four active parts were different) Of the seven areas that lit up during unconditional love, it showed brain regions associated with rewarding aspects, non sexual pleasurable feelings and human maternal behavior. Through the associations made between the different regions, results show that the feeling of love for someone unconditionally is different from the feeling of romantic love.
(image shows differences between ‘romantic’ and ‘maternal’ love in our neural firing)
Even though our early childhood experiences can impact the wiring of our brain and our tendency towards more or less self-love and positive self esteem, we also now know the brain can be changed and these neural networks can be modified and re-wired all together. We can actually make new choices for how we want to create our lives and our ability to experience love and positivity. We also know that feeling connected and cared for (loved) remodels the neural architecture of the brain too. Studies show supportive relationships are the most robust predictor of attributes in longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and wisdom.
JUST ENOUGH SCIENCE
Let’s try to simplify this so we can each appreciate and feel empowered around the essential mechanisms of our own brain/body.
Our thoughts and emotions decide whether and how neurons will fire and how they wire/unwire to produce structural changes in the brain. Needless to say, how our neurons fire and wire is the most essential function of whom and how we are. There is no sidestepping or avoiding this. Everything we are and become, not to mention basic motor (motion) functions, are based on our neurons and neural pathways.
Emotions are powerful influences activated by your perceptions/thoughts that then direct the processes of the body. Every time you have a thought or feeling, your body releases tiny chemical proteins called neuropeptides. (Neuropeptides are used by our neurons to communicate with one another.) There are more than a thousand different neuropeptides….each triggering its own specific physiological effect. Without neuropeptides, your body could not function. Hormones, for example, are neuropeptides, as are endorphins and adrenalin.
Together, emotions and (interpretive) thoughts will:
~ Produce physiological sensations felt throughout the body
~ Can create an imbalance where the resulting neuropeptides can cause physical symptoms to appear. Any prolonged negative mental state will weaken a correlating area of your body.
~ Release hormones into the bloodstream that affect the balance of all the body’s critical systems (circulatory, digestive, endocrine, immune, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal, and urinary…for overview of the systems see the end of this article)
~ Stimulate the basic cells of the brain (neurons) to fire in specific patterns.
~Sculpt the important synaptic connections between neurons of the nervous system/ brain.
~ Can shape the actions you take in any given moment, if you take any action at all.
~ Affect the heart. The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. One of the most significant findings is that intentionally generated positive emotions can change the coding of the heart. This ‘coding’ is transmitted throughout and outside of the body.
~ Love alters the brain most in stress response and immune function but also in many other ways. It affects our physiological and neural functions towards balance and wellness. Frequent episodes of stress and negativity can impair certain body systems the following 3 body systems in particular:
Long term effects of stress on the cardiovascular system can result in increased heart rate, damaged blood vessels, high blood pressure, and increase in serum cholesterol levels. All of which lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Digestive system (Actually our 2nd brain and command center)
Stress virtually shuts down the gastrointestinal system (GI). During the acute stage of stress, blood is diverted from the GI tract to muscles, where it is needed much more. Stomach peristalsis is reduced and sphincters are closed. The body reduces secretion of acid juices and digestion slows down. Needless to say this can lead to many illnesses and disease.
Your body naturally produces immune cells, called T lymphocytes, that fight bacteria, viral infections, fungi, and cancer cells. Elevated levels of adrenal hormones during stress suppress the body’s production of T lymphocytes and weaken your whole immune system. Not only does stress worsen existing infections, you also become more susceptible to immune system related health problems.
The above list gives a general overview of the very complex and important relationships between our emotions, thoughts and body. While we have a wide array of emotions to add richness and scope to our understanding of our self and the world our body actually narrows these down. Neurologically, your mind and body are generally in one of two overarching emotional states, either love or fear.
The number of nuances and intensities of these core emotions may be countless, but emotional responses and physiological sensations in the body are, in some way, rooted in love or fear.
Other labels can be used for love and fear. For example, for love, we can choose the words ‘empathy’ or ‘compassion,’ and, for fear, we can choose the words ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress.’ The point is that the label we use is … well…not the point.
What is essential to note is that these core emotions alter the physiological state of the body and mind in the overall direction of one or the other. When we look at love and fear as core ‘felt’ states, the brain responds to them each uniquely.
WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT NEURAL PATHWAYS?
Many fields of science are showing us that the brain is constantly rewiring itself based on daily life. This is quite exciting since the belief used to be that you couldn’t really change your brain because it was a static organ. Now we know that there is brain plasticity….it can change and stretch and reshape….or it can be reinforced to maintain the same neural pathways.
The brain maintains or creates new neural pathways and associations that feed and fuel our opinions, choices, memories, skills, fears and passions (to name a few). Everything we learn becomes part of our neural associations or pathways that we maintain or change through repetition.
Memories of your childhood can come back to you because they are all tied together or bundled together by these neural pathways or associations in the brain. Anything you learn, regardless of what it is, becomes part of the vast neuronal associations in the brain, which contain over one billion nerve cells.
When you learn to tie your shoes, ride a bicycle, drive a car, use a computer keyboard, or learn a musical instrument, your brain gradually develops and arranges the neural pathways to make your “practicing” become automatic. The more you practice, and the more quality time you put into your practice, the more that your brain pathways change. Fairly soon, you know how to tie your shoes and you don’t think about it anymore. This practice you have done has made tying your shoes become automatic. And this is true for any activity that you do.
It is exactly the same way with cognitive or emotional learning. As you learn, and then practice methods, strategies, and concepts, a new neural pathway begins to form. The more you practice, the more this new neural pathway or association grows.
If you are repeatedly thinking negative thoughts (not practicing self-love), you are actually strengthening neural pathways in your brain that support continued negative thinking. More so, speaking the thoughts out loud appears to compound the building of those pathways. Alternatively, if we have thoughts that are positive, uplifting or based in Love then we can rewire our brains for stronger connections in these arenas. With repetitive practice, you can shift your feelings and begin a process of building unconditioned self-love and feeling more positive about yourself. As with the negative processes, speaking positive thoughts and feelings out loud can reinforce them exponentially. Like studying for any test, there are ways to get your brain on board to rewire and remember.
(this image shows the differences in neural firing based on whether you speak, see, hear or think about words)
LOVE IS RELAXING
A feeling of self-love allows our bodies (especially our nervous system) to relax. In case you didn’t know, relaxation has profound health benefits and self-love is a potent source. Relaxation is defined as being free from stress and anxiety and a sense of love specifically addresses these issues. Studies have shown that self-love and positive self-esteem create a sense of safety, an ease of anxiety and overall calm.
Relaxation research tells us that relaxation is our natural state of being and is connected to that feeling of love and safety in the womb. We can unwire the neural pathways of stress we have learned and use self-love and positive thinking to support relaxation wiring. Once we begin to make new choices we will become more aware of circumstances that cause us to tense up and be able to stay more at ease rather than react to the stressors in our environment.
We spend a lot of our time in a state of mental and physical tension or dis-ease. We tend to hold our breath, unknowingly clench our jaws, frown, and tighten our muscles. The consistent contraction of our muscles drains our energy, causing fatigue. Some research shows that 80 percent of illness is stress-related, that whatever your genetic ‘weak’ link (or challenge) is, stress will trigger it.
As the body starts to relax, certain physiological changes occur. Your pulse rate lowers and muscular tension releases. Relaxation brings mind and body into essential balance, reduces fatigue, releases and expels toxins and revitalizes many of our bodily systems.
And somewhat ironically, we are able to learn more when we are in a relaxed state too. So once you begin to practice self-love and create a deeper sense of calm and relaxation in your body (inside and out) it becomes easier to keep learning more ways to increase this overall state.
Some possible affects of relaxation:
~Improves concentration, clarity of thinking, decision making, memory , learning
~Calms your bodies stress responses while it maintains alertness
~Stimulates imagination, intuition and higher awareness
~Allows you to sleep better, fall asleep easily, stay asleep through the night
~Keeps you healthier by boosting your immune system and possibly diminishes triggers of disease.
~Slows aging process
Self-love generates relaxation and these bodily responses as a by- product. Again, we see that the affects of love and positive self-esteem are fundamental to our overall health and wellness and not simply icing on some intangible cake. Each living person needs this basic nourishment and now we have science to ‘explain’ more about why we need it, offer us insight to the impacts of its absence and tools for shifting.
So, why not fall in love with yourself every moment of the day? What gets in the way?
We know that one of our greatest obstacles can be our conditioned neural pathways but we also know we can shift these connections. (How/what we ‘fire’ is how we ‘wire’).
There are so many tools to help shift old habits and create new ones. Each of us is unique in which tools will serve us best so I have here a diverse list of suggestions for you to ‘riff’ on. Many will perhaps sound familiar but see if you can connect beyond the caricature of them and more into how they might be of service to you personally. See what appeals to you and sparks your own ideas as you grow this practice incorporating self-love language and existence into your daily life:
~ Awareness of your own thought and language habits is the key to this work. If you accept that you can change your life by changing your thoughts and words, then paying attention to your thoughts and words is critical. It’s all about awareness and shifting towards your version of unconditional love. How can you bring more attention to your language and thoughts right now?
~ Pay attention to your thoughts, and whenever you notice yourself in a pattern that is less than kind or loving, simply interrupt it. Break the pattern in some way either by speaking out loud your intention, drinking some water or even singing a song. Try doing this for 5 minutes to help enforce the shift from the negative thought pattern. This simple interruption has profound repercussions as it sends a message that change is in the air. It also doesn’t allow for the reinforcement of the negative to play out as usual.
~ Allow yourself to believe (interrupt the beautiful naysayers inside you) that you can do this and it is your birthright to love yourself without conditions every moment of the day. It is not about banishing these other voices inside of you. It is about meeting them with love and kindness and allowing space for something different.
~Practice treating yourself the same way you would treat a friend or loved one with care. In supportive situations would you scold or console a friend? React or comfort? Forgive or hold a grudge?
~ Practice forgiveness and be accepting of yourself even when it looks different than your conditioned expectations. Move towards appreciating yourself now, in this very moment and not for something ahead in the future or a held ideal from the past.
~ Look into your own eyes in the mirror and feel unconditional love and appreciation for the image you see reflected. Practice connecting the image of you with these feelings and eventually your own image will be a trigger for incredible feelings of positivity. (Studies have shown that a long love affair with the image of ‘self’ can calm sites in the brain associated with fear and anxiety.)
~ Healing touch. Next time you are feeling a lack of unconditional love for yourself, try to shift this through your own healing touch. Studies have shown that holding your own hand can reduce pain and touch in general can lower blood pressure as well as many other physical and emotional benefits. These benefits cannot be underestimated. You can simply hold yourself in a comforting hug, pat your chest/back or rub your arm…..anything you find soothing for yourself.
~ Start your day with an intentional vision. When you wake up say out loud your vision for how your day will unfold. One example might be: “My day is filled with unconditional love, positive interactions and activities that nourish me.” You can get specific or stay general; whatever feels best for you that day. If you want to super boost the affect of this you can go to a mirror and have this same conversation looking at your reflection.
~ Step away from or avoid situations that diminish unconditional love of self or others. If you notice you are in a situation or conversation that feels negative make a choice to step away. There is no need to judge others who might continue this behavior (in fact it’s healthiest to stay positive across the board) but you can decide for yourself that it is malnourishing and actually reinforces negative connections in your own brain. If stepping away is difficult perhaps try to shift the tone of the conversation by guiding it with gentle words of compassion and positive outlook as opposed to a sledgehammer of self-righteousness ‘I know better’ attitude.
~ Engage the power of gratitude. Several times a day, take a moment to look around you and verbally acknowledge what you are grateful for. It can be something as simple as seeing a bird fly by, hands that touch, sun that shines through trees or a pen with ink. These observations support your brain wiring towards the positive and towards self-love. There is no hierarchy or measurement of gratitude for our brains, the expression is pure and simple and the affects follow this simplicity.
~ We all realize that life is sometimes painful. There are times when we find we have to speak about negative, painful or unpleasant things. During these times, speaking about our pain can help us unburden ourselves from it and might even be a part of our healing. Remember that even during these times, unconditional love can co-exist. Let your practice of self-love be even stronger so you can learn that they are not incongruous. Once the challenge or pain begins to lift, follow up with words and discussion around healing and action. Actually speak and envision feeling better even before you feel ready to do so. You will be paving the (neural) path for yourself as you continue to take steps on your journey of healing and building positive experiences even during life’s challenges.
~ Super charge any of these. If you really want to boost any of these practices, write down your unconditional love affirmations, words of gratitude or positive thoughts, before during or after you speak them. Engaging all parts of the body (physical, visual, auditory) sends even more signals to reinforce love and positive feelings. Find as many different ways to engage these thoughts and feelings somatically (body, mind, spirit, emotions) and create practices that work for your own energy or creativity.
~ Be consistent. Transforming the neural pathways of the brain takes time, patience and practice. Like any exercise the work must be done regularly to affect change.
Self -love has many benefits for us as individuals but it also teaches us how to express love in the most balanced and fundamental ways. As we give to ourselves we are able to receive and also give more love to others in many forms. It becomes an abundant resource that is a great investment in growing our unconditional self-love bank.
And remember, our habits and conditioning around self-love have been in the making for a lifetime. The shift into total self-love might take a little time and patience. Be gentle and loving without conditions as you find your personal way through the map of YOU.