Your Social Brain: Wired for Love and Connection

Loving couple cuddles on sofa smiling at each other while drinking coffee in living roomIf asked what organ in the body is most instrumental for love and connection, what comes up? Do you automatically think brain?

Well, you should.

The brain may be the most exciting organ in the body. The 3 pounds of gelatinous tissue that resides in the skull is vital to how we love. As it turns out, the brain is an extremely social organ. Research in the field of neuropsychology sheds light on just how social our brains are in creating connections with others.

The brain is shaped by love and flourishes in social connection. Our early relationships create attachment bonds that help wire our brains. During the first few years of life, our emotional interactions with parents or primary caregivers stimulate a multitude of neurochemical processes that increase nerve growth and connectivity. The brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, that communicate with each other by firing chemical and electrical signals. The more frequently these neurons communicate with each other, the stronger the connections become.

The brain’s growth and development is enhanced by emotional interaction. From about the age of 4 months to 6 months, a child begins to pick up on social cues from their mother or primary caregiver. Loving social engagement is crucial in our early years and is important in maintaining a secure attachment. Without these vital social interactions with loved ones, the right side of the brain—the core place for processing emotion, both verbal and nonverbal cues (such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and emotional response)—is deprived.

Babies are sensitive and begin the process of communicating before they can talk. Our mother’s or primary caregiver’s delight (or lack of it) communicates a strong message. Over time, these messages are encoded in our brains and create a neural template for future relationships.

Positive models for love and interactions create secure and loving bonds. These bonds serve as internal models that shape and influence adult love attachments. Negative models or lack of healthy models for love and interaction create insecure bonds that can also influence future love relationships.

The Role of Chemical Reactions in the Brain

These early social interactions help wire our brains via chemical reactions. One key chemical, oxytocin, may hold deeper insight into our relationships. Oxytocin is both a hormone and a chemical messenger, called a neurotransmitter. It is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted and transported by the pituitary gland. In recent years, oxytocin has been referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone,” as it helps to create robust bonds between mothers and babies, as well as adults.

In adult relationships, oxytocin can play a significant role in enhancing love and connection. It is not usually a topic for romantic conversations; however, understanding the role it plays can do a lot to ignite feelings of affection and greater empathy in a relationship.

Everyone has oxytocin, though studies show it is usually higher in females. Males have higher levels of a similar chemical called vasopressin. Scientists have been aware for some time that oxytocin is released during breastfeeding and orgasm. More recent research focusing on the oxytocin system, however, provides evidence in both humans and animals that interacting with one’s partner or offspring can influence oxytocin transmission. This, in turn, promotes behaviors that further bonding, social interaction, and emotional well-being.

In adult relationships, oxytocin can play a significant role in enhancing love and connection. It is not usually a topic for romantic conversations; however, understanding the role it plays can do a lot to ignite feelings of affection and greater empathy in a relationship.

Here are two simple ways to wire your brain for greater love and connection:

1. Think Positively About Your Spouse or Partner

Thinking about your spouse or partner in positive ways can spark this chemical reaction, causing you to feel good. It can also help you to be more empathic and understanding. In my work with couples, I often have them do an assignment that helps them in this process. I have them actively work on thinking about good and positive traits, characteristics, and experiences involving their loved ones. It serves two purposes: One, it helps release oxytocin. Second, it helps to rewire their brain so better thoughts override negative ones. If you feel you are too stuck in old patterns to think well of your spouse or partner, it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional.

2. Hold Hands (or Better Yet, Cuddle!)

They don’t call oxytocin the cuddle or love hormone for nothing. Research has demonstrated that being physically close or holding hands can release oxytocin. In my office, I often have couples hold hands, embrace, or gaze into each other’s eyes. This is risky for some, but the outcome is worth it. These simple acts help to retune each other’s nervous systems. It also helps to improve trust, empathy, and comfort. You may want to try it.

All healthy relationships take time, energy, and effort. If you long for a good one, you will want to invest emotion, affection, and heart. Audrey Hepburn said it well: “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.”

References:

  1. Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense. Little, Brown and Company. New York: NY.
  2. MacGill, M. (2017). Oxytocin: The love hormone? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795.php#oxytocin%20the_love_hormone
  3. Uchino, B., & Way, B. (2017). Integrative pathways linking close family ties to health: A neurochemical perspective. American Psychologist, 72, No. 6, 590-600.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Bisignano, PhD, therapist in Palos Verdes Peninsula, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 3 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Constance

    Constance

    November 15th, 2017 at 11:16 AM

    Much of life boils down to simply how you think about things. If you think positive thoughts about your loved ones, then you are going to feel more kind and loving toward them.m Think mean thoughts about them, and guess how you begin to feel?

  • Angela Bisignano

    Angela Bisignano

    November 16th, 2017 at 7:33 AM

    You make a good point. Thinking well of our loved ones makes a big difference in comparison to negative thoughts towards them.

  • Sad

    Sad

    November 30th, 2017 at 4:07 PM

    Can someone tell this to my boyfriend please?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.