Hard wired for Heartache?

The Chemisty of Attraction

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 654   By: Lauren Davis

07th February, 2008     0

"Chemistry can be a good and bad thing. Chemistry is good when you make love with it. Chemistry is bad when you make crack with it."
-Adam Sandler

"No, this trick won't work...How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?"
-Albert Einstein

Amazing, isn't it? Within this shared human experience that Carl Jung called the Collective Unconscious, there seems to be a powerful, and universally accepted undercurrent. You can't see it, touch it, smell it, or plop it into a Petri dish, and yet, there is no one among us willing to deny its existence.

What can be said of any other thing?

Neo-Nazi's deny the Holocaust. Some claim that man never set foot on the moon. Physicists argue against the plausibility of ghosts. Some claim Christ never existed as a person, prophet or otherwise. Though plenty of direct and circumstantial evidence would infer a reasonable conclusion that all of the above are real, there are still those who deny.

But love?

There are those who deny it for themselves, but there is absolutely no objection to the concept that it exists, powerfully and magically, within our species.

I try to wrap my mind around that, and I am at a loss to explain the hypocrisy.

IS love a force, a function or a feeble attempt at explaining something else?

How can one explain and dissect a force, which seems to conflict itself, in that it can vary by degree, but never in potency?

My friends think I'm nuts. In doing research for this article, and after years hosting The Wheelz Fourplay at Four, a radio show about love, sex, and relationships, I've heard plenty of testimony from thousands of people who are trying to sort it out themselves. They struggle with the definition, but none deny the term.

So this makes me crazy. I need answers. What is love, really?

For most of us, it cannot be described in anything but the most subjective and emotionally charged terms.

So let's look at it logically: this is not only a force that we acknowledge, but which we gladly accept without any idea what makes it tick!  What is it within us that makes us crave something that we understand so little, yet is capable of can reeking so much havoc?

Let's face it. Every lousy decision ever made in the history of man was likely the result of a good or bad relationship with a singular catalyst: Love.

I understand the basics. I get that there are a million chemicals jockeying for position within us that do weird things to us when we're in love. Estrogen, Testosterone, Dopamine, NorepinephrineŠall the big players come to the game and they are clearly, substantially committed to a primary objective. But what is that objective? How does the body and brain know when it's in love? Why does it feel the need to love in the first place?

For answers, I went to Ken Meisel, a clinical psychotherapist with a private practice in St. Clair Shores who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy. He's also a poet, with three books to his credit, who has been featured in over fifty national publications.

As a family therapist, Ken knows the science behind this mysterious "love force". But even more importantly, he understands its effects. I also know him to be a pretty straightforward kind of a guy. He's the perfect choice to field some of the tougher love questions. 

After allŠI have questions. Lots of em'. I know what love means to meŠbut what does it mean to us all, as humans? So I start throwing hardballs right out of the gate:

Review: Ken, everyone knows that there is a science behind, and a purpose to sexual attraction. But what purpose, from a scientific standpoint, does LOVE serve?
Meisel: Let's give a quick, brief, but useful definition of love: love is a heartfelt yes that one person makes to another: that yes ensures an unselfish presence. I am in effect insuring that I will stay present to and with you. If I can do that, then we will 'attach' to one another in a series of cues and counter cues that enact out the process of synchronization.
Love is the echo of synchronicity between two persons trying to evolve in love together. Love is serial evocation between two people. Love is the proverbial verb...

Love is active, attuned engagement that co-creates positive structures of memory that have within them the aural and kinesthetic tones of intimacy. Once you experience it, you never ever forget it. It becomes part of the fabric of your lived, visceral consciousness. You want to seek it out, again and again and again. You hunger for its presence in your self and in your life.

Love serves the biological purpose of survival. It is the way that human beings perpetuate their ability to preserve, protect and enhance intimate involvement. The key word, here, is intimate. Intimacy. Into me you see.

Love, scientifically studied, is the study of the inherent 'laws' by which the brain, functioning as the enabler of love, carries out love, i.e., the ability to strongly say yes to another person in the service of enhancing their survival, fulfillment, becoming.

When we study this at the neurobiological level, we are able to see at all the subtle, neuronal and physiological levels, how all of it works.

Review: Has love evolved?
Meisel: Love evolves as the person grows up. So, yes, as the brain of a developing child grows up, so too, does the ability to love.
We are the carriers of love. It is our opportunity to 'grow love up.' If we do it, then we enhance our evolution. In so doing, we enhance our civilization. Our culture. Culture coming from the derivative, Cultus meaning: to care.

Review: How is it that love is associated with a natural, biochemical process?

Meisel: Love as a biochemical process is the way that we experience at the physiological and neuronal levels all of the intricate ways that make special our human & mammalian version of attachment. I'll just touch on two key and critical components that make us distinct. They are two clever devices: Protest & Despair. When an infant child is threatened by his mother's sudden absence, he goes into Protest. He objects, whines, and starts grabbing for her. He is now searching for her. At the physiological level, his heart rate quickens and stress hormones blossom. Also, his body temperature elevates. He is, in essence, alerted to her absence. If she returns, his physiology is soothed. If she doesn't return, and never returns, he falls into Despair. His heart rate drops, his temperature drops, sleep is disturbed and immune function falters.

So, the biochemical process of love is that set of amazing variables and functions that keeps us 'attuned' to the preservation of the presence of another. We are hard wired to protect and preserve the presence of another within our social field.

Review: What exactly, is that funky, pit of the gut feeling we get when we're in love?

Meisel: It is the cross axis of our excitement and fear. It is chemical and it is existential; we feel it as that enchanted moment of our devastation and our becoming; both, at once. Does it ever really go away? Maybe we are fooled into feeling it less as time goes on? But, nah, it's always with us.

Review: What separates humans from other species in the pursuit of a partner?

Meisel: We have within our make-ups the capacity to engage in synchronicity with each other. This is a function of our limbic brain [our mammalian brain]. We engage in 'limbic resonance' with each other, that is, we evolve a series of exchangeable glances of glad countenance with each other that make up a symphony of enjoyable, enchanted engagement. Hmm, it feels so good with you, so let's keep it up. If we keep it up, the bank account of a deepened intimacy, a maturity of consciousness, and the accrual of love-wisdom becomes our dividend.

Review: From a neurological perspective, can love be mapped and measured?

Meisel: Yes. It can be measured...and this is complicated, but it can be measured through the neuronal connections laid down within the tile work of memory. Think of it as cryptographic lines of connection; i.e. neuronal highways.......some of this occurs wonderfully in the limbic brain....where limbic resonance is......So, if you and I engage in a series of glad countenances with each other our neuronal pathways form through such enactments and they become the totality of a grid work of memorized echoes and recalls.

I recall the path to your heart and you to mine, and so we replay the path over and over again. Essentially what I am saying is that love exchanges actually alter the structure of our brains. This theory is called parallel-distributed-processing...it is the study of how neuronal pathways are set via communication between two people.

This is essentially also understood within the context of memory research. How are memories made? And so we study--neuronally--how it is a particular grid of neuronal firings are made...how one set of firing becomes predominant over another, and so forth.

A final point: there is ample evidence that we can form new neuronal pathways....between our limbic brain and our frontal cortex well into our seventies...essentially that means we continue to create and refine our neuronal highways well into old age.

Review: Are there behavioral, social, neurological or biochemical indicators that one person has a greater propensity to love over another?

Meisel: Yes. The simplest answer. ŠIf the person has severe attachment disorder, i.e., the person's early attachment experiences with the maternal figure are fraught with rejection and abandonment, we have the likelihood that that individual will be less likely to manage and maintain intimate presence with another in conjunction with one who has experience very positive, continual and safe attachment.

Here's a simple left turn: if a child isn't breastfed, he loses valuable protective covering of the neuronal connections in his brain. The lack of that can create great and severe difficulty with self soothing, etcetera. Without self soothing capability, the ability to love is very much disturbed....

Review: What critical factors differentiate the successful love relationship from those which are not?

Meisel: Three critical variables--and these answers come from the work of John Gottman who studied the key factors in marriages that succeed or fail. Here they are: Fondness and Admiration. Successful love relationships are factories that create and maintain fondness and admiration. In so doing, the friendship deepens and expands. Regulation of positivity to negativity. Successful love relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity within them. Relationships that are doomed to failure are in fact containers creating negative exchanges that then become negative subtext memory, which creates avoidance and then escape. Influence. Successful relationships are characterized by mutual influence; each partner influences the other in a positive way.

Review: How does the hard wiring you speak of become affected by environmental influences?

Meisel: There are several highways we can traverse to answer this. At the neuronal and memory level, what we have are hard wired memories [fixed firing patterns] that create and culminate in unsatisfactory exchanges. The poorly loved child develops neuronal highways of memory that serve in a perverse self reinforcing pattern the very rejection he experienced as a child.

At the limbic brain level, children raised in hostile or negligent environments have much more agitation--by history--of the amygdale, that almond shaped organ inside the limbic brain that is activated by distress. These kids that become adults are much more likely to experience disturbances in self soothing, self control, and emotional management. Essentially, they are over aroused and disturbingly stimulated--at the limbic brain level. The result is that they do not manage their emotions well at all.

Review: Is there a capacity within the human brain to override negative aspects of human development, such as failure to thrive, and actually love? Or are those skills, if learned, redundant unless the individual has built the neurological connections to make everything fire off as it should?

Meisel: Yes and yes. Because of our intrinsic capacity for limbic resonance, we can and often do develop, or I should say, re-create and refine better ways of loving and being loved despite our upbringing. However, some folks, because of severe deficits in their neurological connection history, never really develop their ability to love. It's tragic.

Review: Sociopaths are now determined to have distinct neurological aspects, which differ from a normal test subject under controlled brain scan experiments. If an intelligent sociopath is taught the skills, can he/she learn to love?

Meisel: I've never met a sociopath that can learn to love, that is, if we define love as that huge capacity to unselfishly say Yes to another and then be intimately and empathically present. What they can learn to do is tolerate levels of intensity within themselves and then manage the impulse to dominate, seduce or injure someone else. This isn't loving so much as it is self control. And that capacity to manage self-control sets the stage for good behavior....but good behavior isn't necessarily love.

And I have met sociopaths that behave well and take care of others better than they used to do. Which ain't bad. But is that really love? I don't mind being wrong on this one, though....

Review: Is love a process, in the absolute physical realm, or does it exist only in the abstract?

Meisel: Love is the process by which two persons positively attune to each other.  And I also believe that the process of love also encompasses all that we imagine as possible within love.

Kierkegaard would even say that true love is the radical forgiveness of the imperfectness of the other. It is that radical forgiveness in advance of all the known disappointments, even. It is the advance holding within empathy of the other as the other. No matter what.

Love is transient and eternal. We are the chorus masters of it. We engineer it and we do magic or sorcery with it. And you know we have free will. We can keep it going or toss it easily away. The study of this rhythm--in all of its foolishness, complexity, debauchery and beauty is one of the key ways that we entertain ourselves within the narrative of our humanity.

Review: What are the factors that contribute to breakdowns in love relationships?
Meisel: Misregulation of negative affect. Folks that act out their negative emotions with each other are doomed to failure, especially when the ratio hits 5:1 negative to positive. Failure to Repair. Gottman found that marriages that fail are marriages that nuke friendship and never repair it. A repair attempt is a sincere apology that contains within it an acknowledgement of a damaging act to the friendship and a promise that it won't happen again. Repair behaviors become that code of ethics between partners. They grow the ethics of marriage.

Turning away behaviors. When the prior things occur, we have a due that turns away from engagement. If this goes on without intervention, then the couple vacations in the town of Estrangement and then one of them buys a ticket to the town of Divorce.

Review: Is there a certain point at which those breakdowns cannot be overcome?

Meisel: Yes. All of the above answer plus one critical, sinister variable. Gottman found that Contempt, which is the willful denigration of another without apology, is the key misdeed that kills it all. He calls it acid on love. When there is unregulated contempt, the titanic sinks. No turning back.

Review: What do you believe accounts for this phenomenon?

Meisel: One of the laws of physics suggest the concept of repulsion. Some folks, like molecules, move into repulsion. This is purely energetic, that is, it's neither good nor bad, it just is. Repulsion happens when two people move out of cohesion and/or adhesion with each other. This is easy to do. Don't hang out with each other, develops separate interests, grow at different rates of speed, etc.

When folks refuse to engage they also fall out of love. That is, they prefer and or grow more comfortable with the sensation of disengagement. They are relieved to be rid of the pressure and tension involved in navigating intimacy. So they navigate separation.

Review: You mention critical variables/predictors for successful, and not so successful, relationships. Can you site some of them?

Meisel:  Management of negativity in a relationship. Enhancement of positivity in a relationship thus predicts more and more turning toward behaviors versus turning away. Negativity & contempt manufacture turning away. Admiration: marriages that make it are factory settings for this. Limbic resonance = production of a network, a neuronal network of positive memories. Positive Influence: Marriages that work are bathed in reciprocal exchanges of influence. Communication exchanges that affirms the worthiness of the other's vision and dreams - these kinds of conversations predict success. Marriages that fail are characterized by broad scale Adversarial-Adversarial exchanges. These conversations are lose-lose bids.

Review: Are there some that simply cannot be overcome?
Meisel: Again, the critical variable that can't be overcome is the ongoing expression of Contempt. It kills all good will, all limbic resonance that is positive, all neuronal patchwork that makes good, safe, positive memory.
It is the acid on love.


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