The Neuroscience of Love
To understand what it is to love another, we need to understand what something is for ourselves. This is the most basic element of empathy. Love begins in empathy. Unless we can enter into the emotional reality of others there is no room for love. Allowing yourself to be affected by another person tears down the wall that has kept you separated. We discover in our connection that the other and our self are in fact one and the same.
Below are five primary ways that God’s reign of love is hardwired into our very being. They are strengthened through love toward God, our neighbors, and ourselves:
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): Belief in a cold, harsh, and distant God produces in us fear and aggression. To believe in a cold and critical God activates the limbic system and particularly the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond shaped structure in the brain that is responsible for the detection and response to threats. If we believe in a cold and distant God then fear and despair will be our reality. Acting as a sort of fulcrum between our emotional limbic system and the logical prefrontal cortex is an area of our brain known as the anterior cingulate. It has been called the heart of our brain because when our thoughts, actions, and worldview are fixed on love and loving relationships, this part of the brain is strengthened and activated.[i] Through it we are wired for love and connection. Its unique cells called von Economo neurons are extensive and guide us to positive emotions. Prolonged anger and anxiety will impair the function of the anterior cingulate.
The ACC also plays a major part in the process of emotions. It helps you process God as kind and loving. It regulates spiritual anxiety, guilt, anger, and fear. It helps in your understanding of empathy and compassion. It is sometimes called the “heart” of the brain. Self-discipline and acts of love will strengthen the ACC. Intense and prolonged fear or addictions will weaken it. It plays a large role in listening to the brain’s circuitry toward the fear response or to choose the governance of the prefrontal cortex’s inhibition of the limbic system. It is a mediator between our feelings and our thoughts. A stronger ACC will help slow down the amygdala’s role in the fear response.
Prefrontal Cortex: The front part of the frontal lobe is known as the prefrontal cortex and it is very important to your integration of self. In How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman demonstrate through research and imaging how the frontal lobe “creates and integrates all your ideas about God – positive or negative”.[ii] If the concepts that govern our minds are powerful, then they will help synchronize with all of our other bodily systems and integrate our prefrontal cortexes. Love is the most powerful and positive of all concepts. It is the nature of God. And at the heart of love is connection. Our brain circuitry will form connection and deepen if our thoughts are fixed on our union with God. Three areas of the frontal lobe that are empowered and empower our union with God are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is associated with inhibiting inappropriate social behaviors. It works in conjunction with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) especially regarding coordination of emotional reaction. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) is involved in moral and ethical decision making as well as making meaning of life. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is the area of the frontal lobe that is responsible for our executive function. There is much research showing that the innermost values that we continually focus on will indeed reframe, strengthen, and restructure our brains.[iii]
We are empowered by thoughts and conceptions of God’s love for us and our union with God. The prologue of John’s gospel reminds us of the union of God and the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word is with God and is God. This is not a distant or harsh God. This is the God of love revealed to us in Christ. The God of love is also with us. Another name for our Lord is Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Scripture reminds us of our togetherness with God. Without concepts that ground us in this love, we will be lost from the start. Fear and threat will hijack our amygdala if we are not grounded in the reality of love. Fear will prevent us from utilizing our executive function and our prefrontal cortex.
Insula and Somatosensory Cortex: The insula helps us interpret our emotions. Imaging has shown that the right frontal insular cortex connects with an ability to empathize with the pain of others. Imaging also shows that it plays a role in the ability to feel one’s own bodily organs such as the heartbeat. It helps us with greater self-awareness through connecting how our emotions are processed in the body. “The insula detects body states that are induced by emotions as part of a process that brings our emotional experiences into our consciousness.”[iv] Another area of the brain that helps us connect with feelings all over the body is the somatosensory cortex of the parietal lobe. It contains a sensory map of all the areas of feeling over your body, such as the face, hands, and legs. If we are angry or afraid, and we have a strong connection to our body, then we will feel things like our jaw clinched or our palms sweating. Other bodily states that connect with our emotions might include knots in our stomach, a sense of lightness, goosebumps, flushed cheeks, or feeling heavy and off-center. Certain bodily states connect with certain emotional states. Unless we take the time to understand how our emotions feel in our own bodies, we will never be able to appreciate the emotional experience of another person. If we are mindfully aware of our body’s sensations, then it will strengthen our insula. It will strengthen our empathy. This concept is so important, that at the end of the sections on each fruit of the Spirit there is a focus question to help you feel how the particular fruit of the Spirit or bad fruit is working in your body. With greater knowledge of the bodily sensations working in us, we will have greater awareness of the riches working in us. We will also be able to help other people name and celebrate how the fruits of the Spirit are working in their bodies. You might wonder why it would be helpful to take time examining how our negative emotions and experiences make us feel. There are exercises in this book to help you investigate indifference, anxiety, desperation, and hate. Often, we are unaware of our negative feelings because of past trauma or from habit. Taking the time to slow down and observe our negative feelings helps us label them and overcome them. It can also help us invite others to do the same for themselves.
Oxytocin: Oxytocin is a neuropeptide. It helps us feel safe and secure. The release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus helps drop the level of cortisol stress hormones. This also helps blood pressure drop. A soothing and warm touch helps the process unfold. It is not necessary to have touch, however. The connection of your mind and heart to remembering that you are loved and connected also has a similar effect. Dan Goleman in his book Social Intelligence speaks to how we can condition the release of oxytocin by putting ourselves in the proximity of people we feel safe and secure with. There have also been studies that show that time with our pets, especially dogs, can help build and strengthen the release of oxytocin. When we activate a memory or image in our mind, we activate the prefrontal cortex. The feeling of being secure and loved within these images and memories will strengthen the circuits to release oxytocin.
Our relationship, bond, affection, and security in God are also rewarded by oxytocin. Our love of God draws us toward altruism, security, bonding, and greater acceptance of outgroups; all features of increased levels of oxytocin. Fr. Pedro Arrupe captures the effect well in this poem:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, that is, than
Falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.[v]
Parietal Lobe: It is one of the four lobes of the cerebral cortex. Its circuitry with other parts of the brain plays a very significant role in our feeling of union with God. It helps establish our understanding of self with space, time, and objects. The parietal-frontal circuit, in particular, helps establish a relationship between our conceptions of “self” and “God”.[vi] It helps establish the feeling of God’s presence in time and space as well as our connection to this reality. The more we pray and meditate on God’s presence, the more it becomes real. What is tremendously interesting is that intense prayer on the oneness of God and our connection to all things, will help decrease activity in the parietal lobe and lead to an increased sense of selflessness. Through prayer and meditation, there is more of an awareness of “we” rather than simply just “I”. Rather than being egocentric, our mind can alter our perception of self so that we see ourselves as part of all things. Often people consciously or unconsciously think about their divisions. Because the parietal lobe is involved in understanding relationship in time and space, concentrating on an understanding of division in the world will produce more activity in the parietal lobe associated with those divisions. With so many societal distinctions that focus on separation and distinction, such as conservative/liberal, black/white, communist/capitalist, etcetera, the ability to overcome division is critical to our ability to engage in empathy and love.
Neuroscience is now helping show how our connection to the oneness of God works in our brains through the parietal-frontal circuit. Our belief and God’s grace draw us into this union. And it changes our neurophysiological makeup. We can now see that when we enter into union with God, we are indeed changed. Christ does not separate His community from Himself. They have changed and become part of Him. Or as the apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). This same point is beautifully detailed in our previous example from the gospel of John: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). Continued prayer, action, and reflection that strengthens our connection with the oneness of God will continue to strengthen our parietal-frontal circuit so that we may live more deeply in and by this incredible truth. God will make a home in us. Love makes a home in us.
[i]Timothy Jennings, The God Shaped Brain, (Illinois: IVP Books, 2014), 38.
[ii]Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, 43.
[iii]Mark Waldman and Chris Manning, NeuroWisdom, (New York: DiversionBooks, 2017), 69.
[iv]Rita Carter, The Human Brain Book, (New York: DK, 2019), 138.
[v]“Valentine’s Day: ‘Falling in Love’ by Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe,” Society of Jesus, accessed August 27, 2019, https://jesuits.org/news-detail?TN=NEWS-20140210025007.
[vi]Newberg and Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, 43.