By Lisa Buksbaum for Positive Psychology News Daily
Words from the heart enter the heart.
~ Mishnah, Rabbinic Commentary on the Talmud. Berachot 6b
Today neuroscience can validate the accuracy of this adage by empirically measuring the impact of loving words, adoring gazes, caring thoughts, and the simple touch of a hand or shoulder. Small gestures can have profound, immediate, and positive impacts on our physiology, thoughts, and feelings. Dacher Keltner speaks about four great loves: the love between parent and child, the passion between sexual partners, the enduring devotion between pair-bonders, and the love for non-kin, most typically friends and fellow humans, but also including pets.
How Can You Resist A Baby?
According to British psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, children come into the world biologically programmed to form attachment with others because this will help them survive. He posits that the first great love of life begins when we leave the womb. It includes a rich vocabulary of touch, voice, gaze, and facial displays and is evident in the merging of minds, heartbeats, and nervous systems of caretaker and young child.
These processes establish deep patterns of neural response in the pre-social nervous system: growth in tactile receptors in the skin, strengthening of the oxytocin system, setting the HPA axis to less stressful levels, and lighting up reward centers in the brain. For those of you who don’t happen to be brain surgeons, HPA is an abbreviation for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It describes a complex set of interactions among the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in the body. Keltner likens the experiences of early love to feeling a warm hand on your back encouraging you as you move through life.
Not everyone forms warm and supportive attachments. Some experienced cycles of isolation or trauma as young children. Fortunately, through twelve-step programs, counseling, and determination, even people without secure attachment can become the empathetic, nurturing parents that they wished they had had.
The Thrill of It All
Anyone who has experienced a grade-school crush, high-school flirtation, or serious love relationship knows that powerful passionate feelings can short-circuit the brain. My first crush was directed towards Bruce Grunt, the new boy in town who sported wavy brown hair, big eyes, and a winning smile. What clinched Bruce as a fifth-grade heart-throb for me was that he reportedly played the drums just like Bobbie Sherman of the Monkees, one of top teen idols at the time.
Just as scientists have documented pervasive baby-parent bonding rituals, simple flirtation rituals echo the same auditory and physical bonding rites. Remember what it felt like to hear the other’s voice or see the other approaching? I remember my heart fluttering when I spotted my husband Jacob walking towards me on Manhattan’s West 86th Street when we were newlyweds. When we’d meet at our lobby, we’d both be grinning from ear to ear. Before proceeding to the elevator we’d share a hug, a universal gesture that places two individual bodies in a heart-to-heart stance. If positive psychologists had been perched in our lobby, they probably could have measured the expansion of our peripheral visions and the rise in our oxytocin levels.
All of these physical reactions demonstrate Barbara Fredrickson’s theory that experiencing positive emotions together actually opens us up to experience more positive sensations. Barb defines love as “micro-moments of connection,” and “positivity resonance.” I invite you to watch this Soaringwords’ video where Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares findings from her riveting book, Love 2.0.
After the Thrill, the Bonding
There’s nothing like the thrill of the powerful choreography of touch.
Just like puppies tumbling around with joy and abandon, everything seems playful and new at the beginning of a relationship. There are many exquisite touch receptors under the surface of the skin that are activated with a provocative brush of the arm, an emphatic pat of the shoulder, a butt bump after a shared joke. These harmless ways of upping the ante in flirtation allow two people to read each other’s reactions to see if they are in fact in synch.
When all goes well, a couple experiences behavioral synchrony with mirror neurons firing and mutual mimicking of expressions, laughter, and body language. The old definitions of self give way to an entirely new identity. The new identity emerging from pair bonding can realign our lives. Amplified devotion prepares us for commitment to monogamous bonding. All of these dance steps of behavioral synchrony reinforce perpetuation of our genes, which brings us right back into experiencing those powerful parent-child bonding emotions with our offspring.
Pay-it-Forward and Expand Your Love
The best way to experience more love is to be gratuitously kind to others without expecting anything in return. Doing something nice for someone else simply because you expect a positive return reduces love to the level of a business transaction. In contrast, paying-it-forward is expansive and generative. This is why for the past sixteen years Soaringwords has inspired thousands of hospitalized children and teens to engage in expressive arts projects to donate to other ill children because we know that this simple gesture accelerates transformative healing.
Atul Gawande describes an experiment by Dr. Bill Thomas at the Chase Memorial Nursing Home concerned with measuring how man’s best friend (and some cats, bunnies and parakeets) retarded illness and aging.
As a young audacious doctor Bill Thomas was put in charge of a nursing home facility. He was dismayed to discover that the residents were depressed, heavily medicated, and isolated as they spent most of their time in their bedrooms or sitting shoulder to shoulder parked in their wheelchairs near the nursing station watching a TV with the sound blasting. Dr. Thomas ordered 100 parakeets, four dogs, two cats, a colony of rabbits, and a flock of laying hens.
The first few days were mayhem as fur and feathers literally flew around the facility. Then patients who were non-ambulatory volunteered to walk the dogs and actually walked for the first time in months. Otherwise non-responsive residents started caressing and caring for the bunnies and cats. Drug costs for the facility fell 38% compared to a comparable facility, while deaths decreased by fifteen percent.
These people needed something to love.
Share the love
So this Valentine’s Day, whether you’re loving a baby, flirting madly with someone new, keeping the flames of love stoked with your mate, or giving to close relatives, cherished friends, strangers, or pets, remember that loving words, gazes, and gentle touch can elevate the giver and receiver to experience laughter, gratitude, and joy together. As Helen Keller aptly said,
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They simply must be felt with the heart.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.
Buksbaum, L. (2013). Soaringwords empirical research to measure the well-being of hospitalized children. MAPP Capstone. University of Pennsylvania.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. New York: Penguin Group.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Gawande, A. (2017). Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Picador.
Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. (1994). Emotional Contagion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.