Love and the Adaptive Brain

We’ve been exploring the neurological importance of associations based on the principle that neurons in the brain which fire together, wire together.

Now in one sense, this isn’t anything remarkable. After all, human beings have always known that when two things are presented to us simultaneously, our brains associate them together.

A basic example of this would be fear in the presence of someone who hurts us, or comfort in the presence of someone who provides nourishment and love. Or again, for a hungry person or animal, the mere presence (and sometimes even the mere thought) of food can be enough to start them salivating. Another example is how love and attraction work. Dr. Norman Doidge explains how the brains of lovers can wire things together that would normally have no relation:

“Stendhal, the nineteenth-century novelist and essayist, understood that love could lead to radical changes in attraction. Romantic love triggers such powerful emotion that we can reconfigure what we find attractive, even overcoming ‘objective’ beauty. In On Love Stendhal describes a young man, Alberic, who meets a woman more beautiful than his mistress. Yet Alberic is far more drawn to his mistress than to this woman because his mistress promises him so much more happiness. Stendhal calls this ‘Beauty Dethroned by Love.’ Love has such power to change attraction that Alberic is turned on by a minor defect on his mistress’s face, her pockmark. It excites him because ‘he has experienced so many emotions in the presence of that pockmark, emotions for the most part exquisite and of the most absorbing interest, that whatever his emotions may have been, they are renewed with incredible vividness at the sight of this sign…”

“Neurons that fire together wire together, and feeling pleasure in the presence of this normally unappealing pockmark causes it to get wired into the brain as a source of delight. A similar mechanism occurs when a ‘reformed’ cocaine addict passes the seedy alleyway where he first took the drug and is overwhelmed with cravings so powerful that he goes back to it. The pleasure he felt during the high was so intense that it caused him to experience the ugly alleyway as enticing, by association.”

While human beings may have always known, through experience, the basic reality of “fire together wire together”, it has only been recently that we’ve have had the science to go with it. Various clinical studies in the latter part of the last century have established that when two parts of the brain (or even two neurons in the brain) get triggered repeatedly at the same time, chemical changes occur in both so they become connected.

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