The Brain on Long-Term Love

What activates the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, calms parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety, and is available to anyone without a prescription?

Long-term relationships.

Researchers Bianca Acevedo, PhD and Arthur Aron, PhD took ten women and seven men who had been married an average of 21.4 years and did fMRIs to look at their brains.


They wanted to see what was happening in their brains while participants looked at photos of their partners.

For a comparison, they also saw photos of a highly familiar acquaintance, a very close, long-time friend, and a less familiar acquaintance.

When looking at their long-term partners, the areas of the brain affected were associated with dopamine reward (like the ventral tegmental area, which is involved in intense emotions relating to love).

This activation is similar to what is seen in the euphoric early-stages of love.

But the difference in long-term relationships vs. new ones is this: brain areas associated with attachment (like the insular cortex and anterior cingulate) were also activated during the fMRIs when looking at long-term partners, as were areas related to learning, memory, and neurohormones (from the hypothalamus).

Overall, people who were happily involved in long-term relationships had increased activation of their pleasure-reward circuits and parts of the brains relating to attachment and bonding.

Not only that, but the parts of the brain associated with anxiety and fear were calmed as well.

You can read the entire article in the February 2012 edition of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Would you like to know more about the neurobiology of love?

I will be talking with neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas, PhD, on How to Mindfully Rewire the Brain for Love as part of the New Brain Science 2012 series.

We will discuss many topics, including:

  • Why rewiring the brain can help improve sex
  • What happens in the brain when we’re afraid
  • How your vagus nerve can help you project peace and safety to the people around you
  • One simple practice that can rewire the brain for serenity instead of fear and over-reactivity


  • You can listen at the time of broadcast, you just have to sign up.

    How have relationships affected the brain health of your patients? Please leave a comment below.



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6 Comments

  1. Christine says:

    I have worked with divorced women that were left by their long term husbands for a younger partner.
    The grief and shock, were over whelming for them. I treated them with EFT Meridian Tapping.
    I treated their situation as a trauma and helped them release the traumatic cellular memories of when they first found out. We then tapped through all the aspects surrounding this trauma.
    With in 2 hours of work they were able to get over the hurt and grief and move on. That was
    2 years ago and they were able to move on and find Joy in their lives with out the spouse.

  2. mana says:

    what about those of us who have had long periods of time with out someone close…how are our brains developing…what would we see on my brain scan?
    If I get one, could I contribute it to your data?
    Mana

  3. Jeanne Childs says:

    So if long term relationships produce this good stuff in the brain, what happens in the brain when a husband or wife dies? i work with bereaved people and the pain I see in their grief is profound.
    If it is brain chemistry, what can we do to relieve it?

    • Connie JK says:

      I am a mentor to women and men who are married to partners who have or are recovering from sexual addictions. Their trauma, grief, and anger is profound. Being the good and loyal wife, they have been blind-sided by their discovery and are in an emotional tailspin. What do we do to help them heal. Most want to stick it out while they’re “loved ones” work to recover but often become totally worn out in the process. I work with a program that focuses on self-empowerment through a series of lessons in a healing workshop. It’s an amazing approach, yet, I question whether it’s worth it at times. It’s very hard and painful work. What could help them?

  4. Barbara Belton, M.S., M.S. says:

    Just finished reading a March 24th NY Times arcticle, The Brain on Love, that Dr. Dan Siegel had a link to with the note that it was the NYT’s most emailed article that week. The writer cites some further research along the very same lines as the research you noted. Shared it and your article with my ‘long-term love’ husband and best friend of 30 years.
    Thanks so much, Ruth and NICABM Looking forward to listening and learning more from Dr. Lucas!

  5. What an inspiring finding! Most studies focus on the problems in marriage, and this research supports the benefits of long term loving relationships. I see couples for therapy, which can be very difficult because of the pain involved in love relationships that are at risk. The hope and the understanding of attachment theory and brain science have enhanced the skills and the benefits of concrete findings help build a reason for couples to stick it out and build on their love.

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