Monday, June 20, 2005

Love; the expansion of the self

"The expansion of the self happens very rapidly, it's one of the most exhilarating experiences there is..." - Dr. Arthur Aron The National Post reprinted a most interesting NYT story on a study that appeared in The Journal of Neurophysiology. The study used MRI scans to see how love affects the brain. Even more interesting was that the researchers thought they could see a difference in early infatuation and mature relationships. Here is an excerpt:
Brain imaging technology cannot read people's minds, experts caution, and a phenomenon as many-sided and socially influenced as love transcends simple computer graphics, like those produced by the technique used in the study, called functional MRI. Still, said Dr. Hans Breiter, director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Collaboration at Massachusetts General Hospital, "I distrust about 95 percent of the MRI literature, and I would give this study an A; it really moves the ball in terms of understanding infatuation love." He added: "The findings fit nicely with a large, growing body of literature describing a generalized reward and aversion system in the brain, and put this intellectual construct of love directly onto the same axis as homeostatic rewards such as food, warmth, craving for drugs." ... This passion-related region was on the opposite side of the brain from another area that registers physical attractiveness, the researchers found, and appeared to be involved in longing, desire and the unexplainable tug that people feel toward one person, among many attractive alternative partners. This distinction, between finding someone attractive and desiring him or her, between liking and wanting, "is all happening in an area of the mammalian brain that takes care of most basic functions, like eating, drinking, eye movements, all at an unconscious level, and I don't think anyone expected this part of the brain to be so specialized," Brown said. The intoxication of new love mellows with time, of course, and the brain scan findings reflect some evidence of this change, Fisher said. In an earlier functional MRI study of romance, published in 2000, researchers at University College London monitored brain activity in young men and women who had been in relationships for about two years. The brain images, also taken while participants looked at photos of their beloved, showed activation in many of the same areas found in the new study — but significantly less so, in the region correlated with passionate love, she said. In the new study, the researchers also saw individual differences in their group of smitten lovers, based on how long the participants had been in the relationships. Compared with the students who were in the first weeks of a new love, those who had been paired off for a year or more showed significantly more activity in an area of the brain linked to long-term commitment.
A naturalist could well look at this study and say, see, there is no such thing as love. It's just a brain doing what brains evolved to do. Myself, I see the beginnings of a vindication of some very old ideas. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1615:
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy—heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to "receive" the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life.
The ability of humans to rewire their outlook as need arises ought to be an area of much study. After all, it is not without limit. The failures of 20th century social engineering ought to be proof of that. While we are not infinitely malleable , it should also be pretty clear that individuals do have this ability in some dimensions, and this has important implications. Young people afraid of marriage and the commitment it brings might very well be right when they say: "I can't do that. I can't see myself as I am now succeeding at that kind of self giving." What often happens, however, is that we simply grow into it. You find yourself (unwittingly, most of the time) altering your perspective to make room for two, where before there was only one. The same holds true for having children, and this is why abortion is such a useless tragedy most of the time. A couple is shocked and surprised by the conception and can only look to the future as one of loss - of time, of money, liberty, and so on. What so often happens is that the little person comes along and you make room, bit by bit. It will be pointed out that while this can and does happen, it is also plain that it does not always happen. People abuse and abandon spouses and children. It's hardly a rare occurrence. I can think of two responses to this. The first is that this re-wiring phenomenon is not well understood. Perhaps there really are some people whose brains are poorly disposed to attachment. It would be very interesting to try and see if there is a genetic or environmental cause for that. The Church views a fully sacramental marriage as having the best chances of succeeding. That means both spouses are practising Catholics and the ceremony (and the preparations!) are presided over by a Catholic priest. At the very least it means the spouses are both baptised, practising Christians. It holds that the sacrament aids in spurring the bonding process on, even in the face of challenges. Mixed marriages have less power, but can succeed wonderfully, depending on the commitment of the spouses. Common Law, non sacramental marriages would be the most likely to be challenging, but we all know these can succeed. We're talking about generalized odds here. It would be interesting to know if there are studies to back this up. There is a chicken and egg problem here, in that a fully sacramental marriage requires the most preparation and one could reasonably say that kind of commitment ups the odds of the marriage succeeding quite a bit, even apart from any particular sacrament. A drive though Las Vegas wedding, on the other hand, takes little effort or forethought, and as such it should not surprise when it buckles at the first sign of serious trouble. This seems to me to be the same thing the Church is saying. God is not bound to the sacrament; he may be anywhere he is sought out - even a Las Vegas drive through chapel. The odds are less that he will be sought out there, however. By doing the prep, we open ourselves up to the work of building up a mature love, one with a sound foundation. We impress on ourselves that ongoing work is required. A look at what happens to people in relationships that fail is in the works by the same authors as the study above. I suspect that ripping up all the new wiring we have been talking about is extremely painful, even traumatic, and I hope there will be proof that our quick divorce culture is not in our best interest. We may, in fact, be getting a glimpse into why some people are self centered all their days. They may fail to undertake the rewiring necessary after growing up in the broken home, or they may shut themselves down after a spouse pulls the wool out from under them. I also suspect that our media culture hinders us all the time, by continually blurring the sensation of sexual attraction and infatuation with that of life long sacrificial love. This study suggests that these involve very different parts of the brain. As for sleeping around and the "pronofication" of almost all levels of the culture, well, that can't be doing us any good, can it? In a way, it's funny that we need studies like this. Media and advertising's abundant use of risque images and innuendos ought to tell us something about how such images impact us, ie. powerfully, and unconsciously. If the images had no power, we wouldn't see them used in that way nearly as much, would we?

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