The science of love and attraction | Column

How do we choose who we love? Do we choose? Why are we so often attracted to those who are not suitable partners for us? What is the secret of finding stable and fulfilling intimacy?

The new science of the brain holds answers to these questions and gives us guidance in engaging in a corrective experience that literally changes the brain’s wiring in the pathways that lead to love and intimacy.

This article draws on fascinating material from the book, “A General Theory of Love,” by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D., three professors of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. They collaborated in forming an explanation for the questions above based on their knowledge of the brain.

The structure of the brain has a lot to do with who and how we love. The human brain developed over time and is comprised of three distinct sub-brains each formed during a distinct time in our evolutionary history. The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain and looks like a bulb sitting on the top of the spinal cord. It contains neurons that control breathing, swallowing, heartbeat, and the startle reflex.

Creatures who have only a reptilian brain, reptiles and lizards, have no emotional life. They can make aggressive and courtship displays, mate and bear young but without feelings. The limbic brain is draped around the reptilian brain. Mammals have this layer which allows them to enter into interactions with each other and with their young. Mammals take care of their young, they nurse and protect them. Sometimes mammals risk their own lives to protect their mate or young. Mammals also play. The most recent layer of the brain to develop was the neocortex. Speaking, writing, planning, reasoning, the experience of the senses and our awareness all reside in the neocortex. Logic and reason reside in the neocortex but it is the limbic brain that is the emotional center for love and attraction.

The human infant, not yet capable of reasoning or planning, gazes at an adult face and at only a few days old can distinguish between emotional expressions. This gaze creates a process called limbic resonance and two mammals become attuned to one another’s emotional states. We see this between mother and infant, between a child and his dog, and between lovers. Attachment, or bonding, begins in this way and is the foundation for the formation of personality. There is also a physiologic level to attachment: two mammals help regulate one another’s hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythm, and immune system through their close contact with one another.

Every child experiences a particular style of relatedness as he grows. With a “good enough” parent he learns that love means protection, nurturance, play, loyalty and so on. If the parent is emotionally unhealthy the child’s brain “memorizes” that love is suffocation, that anger is terrifying, that dependence needs go unmet, or any of a million other emotionally crippling variations. Healthy families are pretty much the same; unhealthy ones are unique. These early love experiences are unconsciously coded into the limbic brain. A neural pathway that the authors of “A General Theory of Love” call an “attractor” is thus formed. Later in life when the adolescent or adult meets another with a relatedness pattern like that of the earlier parent or caregiver there is an instant attraction based on a match to the attractor neurons in the limbic brain. Another way to think about this is that an “emotional memory network” is created and later triggered by a similar relational pattern.

If the early experiences were positive there is little trouble. Those with healthy emotional memory networks attract healthy lovers. Those with unhealthy emotional memory networks attract a familiar type of unhealthy partner. Only those who match our emotional memory networks will be noticed and considered. Indeed, those who match most closely our original prototypes will be entrancing! What can be done if our attractors mislead us into unhealthy relationships?

Psychotherapy makes change possible. In an on-going relationship with a healthy therapist the neural networks that control attraction get “rewired” and clients emerge ready to attract healthy partners. There is no pill or medicine that can substitute for a healthy relationship.

The therapist looks at the client in much the same way that a healthy mother returns the gaze of her infant. A client who is helped to relax for a time into reliance on the therapist will emerge from that reliance with a healthy sense of self. Therapy sessions allow the client to feel safe, calm, and centered in much the same way that mothering by a healthy mother would have caused these feelings years ago. It is the actual therapeutic relationship that is healing. Insight and ideas don’t rewire the limbic brain. Healthy relational experiences do. In a like manner, couples engaged in troubled relationships can learn the skills of healthy relationship in couple therapy that will allow them to help rewire each other’s brains into more intimate and mutually satisfying patterns.

Carol Weiss, MA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and can be reached on Lopez at 468-4006. “A General Theory of Love,” by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon was published by Vintage Books in 2001.