Neuroscientist Stephanie Ortig thought, for many years, that the answer was yes to the question: Can we do without love?
Although she researched the science of human relations, Ortig could not fully understand 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 the human connection“I told myself that disengagement made me a more objective researcher: I could investigate love without being under its spell.”
But then, in 2011, at the age of 37, she met John Cassiobo at a neuroscience conference in Shanghai. Her interest was aroused by Casiobo, who promoted the concept that prolonged loneliness can be just as harmful to health as smoking. The two scientists got married and took his last name, and soon became colleagues at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago (where she now runs the Brain Dynamics Laboratory) – with a team formed at home and in the laboratory.
Wired for Love is a neurobiological story of how love reconnects the brain. It’s also a personal love story – what 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 fight loneliness and how love is, literally , a product of the imagination.
The questions and answers have been edited and summarized for clarity, via The Independent:
s: You went from being a happy single, to marriage, and then losing your husband. How did the meeting with her make your search for love come alive?
A: When we first met, we talked for three hours, but I did not feel that time was running out. I felt euphoric – from the rush of dopamine. I blushed – a sign of adrenaline. This was by activating mirror neurons, a network of brain cells that are activated when you move or feel something and when you see someone else moving. And when you have a strong connection with someone, the mirror neuron system improves.
We soon became “us”. When John was ill, she went to 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 it feels. This is because the brain releases the neurotransmitters of good feeling that boost our mood. And when we find love, it’s like biological fireworks. Our heart rate is also high. Levels of the so-called love hormone oxytocin increase, which makes us feel connected. And our levels of norepinephrine and neurotransmitters increase, causing us to lose track of time, our adrenaline levels increase, dilating the capillaries in our cheeks and causing us to blush.
Meanwhile, levels of serotonin, a key hormone in regulating appetite and interfering thoughts, fall. So when we are in love, we may find ourselves eating irregularly or focusing on the small details, worrying about sending the “perfect text”, “saying the perfect words” and then sending the text or call again and again in the brain.
Then, as we begin to feel a deep sense of calm and contentment with our partner, areas of the brain are activated that not only evoke basic emotions but also lead to more complex cognitive functions. 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 loved one, your closest circle of friends, your family, and even your favorite sports team – is just as essential to a person’s well-being as to eat a good diet.
And love – in the general way I now conceive of the term – is the opposite of loneliness. And when we look at the lack of positive and healthy relationships, we see a range of physical and mental flaws – from depression to high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep deprivation.
And if you do not feel like you have a meaningful relationship, it is like you have social thirst and your brain sends a signal to tell you that you need the help of your social body. It triggers some of the same alarms that are triggered when people feel thirsty, when people feel disconnected from others. And the key is not to suppress these feelings, but to help us survive. We need to do something about it.
s: But is there still a stigma to accept 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 closer to others, but a lonely mind has been so lonely for so long that it reveals more threats – incorrectly, of course – and makes you want to retreat instead of approach others.
s: What advice would you give to those struggling to find love or to connect with others?
A: Love does not have to be with a living person. If you truly love life, with your passion, with your hobby, it can also be a barrier against loneliness.
s: How do we help the isolated people we care for?
A: For years, people thought that to help lonely people, you need to unite them. But the worst thing you can do to a lonely person is to try to help them without asking for help in return. Instead, we need to help them gain a new sense of worth. We can ask them for their advice, show respect and self-reliance and your understanding of your importance – all of these things can give a lonely person a sense of worth and belonging that reduces feelings of isolation. .
s: Do distance love, love after separation, or love for someone who has passed away have a similar effect?
A: Yes, you can keep in touch with others even if you are alone in a room, close your eyes now and think about the person you love the most. Now, think about the last time you made them laugh out loud. Does this bring you a smile on your face? We store these positive memories in our minds and can access them at any time. We have a remote control.
Source: The Independent