Neuroscientist Stephanie Ortig thought for many years that the answer was yes to the question: Can we do without love?
Although she had researched the science of human connections, Ortig could not fully realize its importance in her life.
She wrote in her new book, Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection: “I told myself that non-involvement made me a more objective researcher: I can explore love without being under the spell of it.”
But then, in 2011, at the age of 37, she met John Cassiobo at a neuroscience conference in Shanghai. Her interest was piqued by Cassiopo, who promoted the concept that prolonged loneliness can be just as harmful to health as smoking. The two scientists married and adopted his surname, and soon became colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine (where she now runs the Brain Dynamics Laboratory) – with a team that formed at home and in the lab .
Wired for Love is a neurobiological story about how love rewires the brain. It’s also a personal love story – one that took a sad turn when John died of cancer in March 2018. In an interview, Ortig discusses exactly what love does to the brain, how to combat loneliness, and how love, literally, is a product of imagination.
The questions and answers were edited and summarized for clarity, via The Independent:
s: You went from happy single, to getting married, and then losing your husband. How did meeting him bring your search for love to life?
A: When we first met, we talked for three hours, but I did not feel the time was running out. I felt euphoric – from the dopamine rush. I blushed – a sign of adrenaline. It was about activating mirror neurons, a network of brain cells that are activated when you move or feel something, and when you see someone else move. And when you have a strong connection with someone, the mirror neuron system is improved.
Soon we became “us”. When John was ill, she went to his radiotherapy. We shared a hospital bed. We were always together.
s: What exactly happens to the brain when we are in love?
A: When we fall in love with someone, the first thing we notice is how good they feel. This is because the brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitters that give our mood a boost. And when we find love, it’s like biological fireworks. Our heart rate is also high. Levels of the so-called love hormone oxytocin rise, making us feel connected. And our norepinephrine and neurotransmitter levels rise, causing us to lose time, our adrenaline levels rise, which dilates the capillaries in our cheeks and makes us flush.
Meanwhile, levels of serotonin, a key hormone in the regulation of appetite and intrusive thoughts, drop. So when we are in love, we may find that we eat irregularly or focus on the small details, we worry about sending the “perfect text”, “say the perfect words,” and then we send the text or phone call over and over back in the brain.
Then, as we begin to feel a deep sense of calm and contentment with our partner, areas of the brain that not only unleash basic emotions but also lead to more complex cognitive functions are activated. This can lead to many positive outcomes, such as less pain, more empathy, better memory and greater creativity. Romantic love is like a superpower that makes the brain thrive.
s: Is love necessary for survival?
A: Love is a biological necessity, just like water, exercise or food. My research has convinced me that a healthy emotional life – which can include your beloved partner, closest circle of friends, your family and even your favorite sports team – is just as essential to a person’s well-being as eating a good diet.
And love – in the overall way I now think of the term – is the opposite of loneliness. And when we look at the absence of positive, healthy relationships, we see a range of physical and mental disabilities – from depression to high blood pressure to diabetes to sleep disruption.
And when you do not feel that you have a meaningful relationship, it is as if you are socially thirsty, and your brain sends a signal to tell you that you need your social body’s help. It activates some of the same alarms that are activated when people feel thirsty, when people feel socially disconnected from others. And the key is not to suppress these feelings, it is to help us survive. We’re supposed to do something about it.
s: But is there still a stigma attached to acknowledging that we are alone?
A: No one feels guilty when they are thirsty, right? So no one should feel guilty when they are alone.
There is a paradox in loneliness. And we want to get close to others, but a lonely spirit has been so lonely for so long that it detects more threats – of course inaccurate – and makes you want to withdraw rather than approach others.
s: What advice would you give to those who are struggling to find love or make contact with others?
A: Love should not be with a living person. If you truly love life, with your passion, with your hobby, it can also be a barrier to loneliness.
s: How do we help the isolated people we care about?
A: For years, people thought to help lonely people bring them together. But the worst thing you can do to a lonely person is to try to help them without asking back for help. Instead, we need to help them gain a new sense of worth. We can ask them for their advice, respect and independence and show your understanding of your importance – all these things can give a lonely person a sense of worth and belonging that reduces feelings of isolation.
s: Does long-distance love, love after a break, or love for someone who has died affect the brain in a similar way?
A: Yes, you can stay in touch with others even when you are alone in a room, now close your eyes and think of the person you love the most. Now think of the last time you made them laugh out loud. Does it put a smile on your face? We store these positive memories in our minds, and we can access them at any time. We have a remote control.
Source: The Independent