Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to Wire Your Brain for Love

Romantic love is a myth, perpetuated by Hollywood and a fascination with the idea that someone else will come along and save us from our suffering. Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown from Naropa University says romantic love has become like a religious cult in Western culture. She says, "Romantic love, no matter how delicious, is the primary symptom of cultural malaise, the central neurosis of Western civilization." But that isn't the same thing as saying there is no such thing as love. 

I just read a great article in the Atlantic about the biology of love, the myth of romantic love, and the scientifically documented benfits of loving kindness meditation. The article comes out of 
psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's new book called Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.

According to Fredrickson, love is based on momentary experiences caused by biological processes in the brain. These processes can also be observed when we make deep connections with other people, including our friends and co-workers, through "mutual understanding and shared emotions." 

This is deeply relevant to the practices of different forms of meditation, since our capacity to experience love can be enhanced through these practices. 

According to Fredrickson the vagus nerve connects your brain to your heart. When I read this my ears perked up. Moving our experience from our brains down to our hearts is a big part of what this blog is all about. 

"Vagal tone" is a measure of the heart rate in association with a person's breathing rate. This is purely biological, but I was fascinated to learn that people with higher vagal tone "can regulate their biological processes like their glucose levels better; they have more control over their emotions, behavior, and attention; they are socially adept and can kindle more positive connections with others; and, most importantly, they are more loving." 

I immediately thought that this sounds like the benefit of meditation. Sure enough, a I read on, Fredrickson's research included study of a specific form of meditation called, maitri: loving kindness meditation. In Buddhist terms, we talk about building our ability to experience compassion through practices like maitri and tonglen

I wouldn't be the first one to say that these types of meditation practices are, among other things, an antidote to despair and loneliness. The article in The Atlantic concludes with these thoughts for Valentine's Day:

Through meditation we are learning to be present with our own hearts and with other people. We are learning to be present for these "little moments of connection." 

We can't just pray for love and happiness. We have to get there ourselves. We have opportunities to experience love all of the time, but we have to meet it. Some of us may even have partners, but have lost the capacity to experience love, either at this exact moment or long-term. The more we develop our ability to experience compassion and the more we learn to communicate with an open heart, the more opportunity we will have to experience a deep connection with other humans, including a partner. 

While I've provided a summary of some interesting points that the article in The Atlantic covers, I highly recommend checking it out for yourself, here.

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