Love the One You’re With


Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

The field of interpersonal neurobiology is an exciting new area of research. The more that is discovered about how the brain works, the clearer it is that it is endlessly open to development and change as it rewires itself every single day. It turns out that how you choose to think really does have an effect on your brain – especially when it comes to love.  Loving relationships have the greatest effect on the wiring and rewiring of the brain.

In 2006, researchers in Virginia gave electric shocks to the ankles of women in happy relationships and measured their anxiety beforehand and pain levels during the shocks.  What they discovered was that the same level of electricity administered when holding their partner’s hand reduced their blood pressure and their brains showed a lower neural response to the pain.  Women in troubled relationships didn’t experience the same relief from holding their partners’ hands.

To quote from Diane Ackerman‘s very interesting article, The Brain on Love

All relationships change the brain — but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.

Every great love affair begins with a scream. At birth, the brain starts blazing new neural pathways based on its odyssey in an alien world. An infant is steeped in bright, buzzing, bristling sensations, raw emotions and the curious feelings they unleash, weird objects, a flux of faces, shadowy images and dreams — but most of all a powerfully magnetic primary caregiver whose wizardry astounds.

Brain scans show synchrony between the brains of mother and child; but what they can’t show is the internal bond that belongs to neither alone, a fusion in which the self feels so permeable it doesn’t matter whose body is whose. Wordlessly, relying on the heart’s semaphores, the mother says all an infant needs to hear, communicating through eyes, face and voice. Thanks to advances in neuroimaging, we now have evidence that a baby’s first attachments imprint its brain. The patterns of a lifetime’s behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin in this crucible.

We used to think this was the end of the story: first heredity, then the brain’s engraving mental maps in childhood, after which you’re pretty much stuck with the final blueprint.

But as a wealth of imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life as we mature and forge friendships, dabble in affairs, succumb to romantic love, choose a soul mate. The body remembers how that oneness with Mother felt, and longs for its adult equivalent. (1)

So, what can we learn from this?

That we need love to be healthy and balanced and happy?  We all probably knew this.

But it also says that every smile, every loving touch, every kindness is worthwhile because it resonates and shapes the brain of the recipient.  It says that we should be careful with each other – even when it’s difficult.   And generous with our love – whenever possible.

This song reminds me of Diane Ackerman’s article – I have no idea why, the link is pretty tenuous – but I really like both the song and the video anyway.  So, here it is –

(1) Diane Ackerman, The Brain on Lovehttp://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/the-brain-on-love/

The Contagion of Sadness


 

Sadness is not contagious.  In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.

Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.

But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.

Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.

The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.

In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.  Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)

Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging.  The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves.  Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.

There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter.  We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.

Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering.  Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.

As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,

…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self.  The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity.  The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.*  By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)

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*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3

(2) ibid, p. 73

Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana

Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar

Shine On


I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.  (Hafíz of Persia)


Peace on Earth – Heart to Heart


The heart is like a box, and language is the key.* 

Photograph – Neighbourhood Children of the Neptune Road-Lovell Street Area – 1973 – Michael Philip Manheim – U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-6813

*’Abdu’l-Bahá The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 60-61

http://eof737.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/happiness-haiku-what-does-happiness-mean-to-you/

Why Does This Make Me Cry?


This video seems to make me cry – but in a good way!

Enjoy!

Beloved


The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved. Victor Hugo 

Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue has studied the effect of love on the brain.(1)  Her study shows that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work together to release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression – combining to produce a feeling of euphoria.

The study also shows that love is a complex process and – as we might have guessed – different types of love engage different parts of the brain.  For example, unconditional love, such as that between a mother and a child causes activity in different parts of the brain to passionate love between two adults.

In spite of the differences though, the process of love always follows the same pattern – it works on the brain to enhance positive emotions (e.g.bonding/pleasure/reward ) and to suppress negative emotions, such as criticism and alienation.

So, love isn’t just the stuff of romantic fantasy.  Love is real and not only is it important to us as individuals but also to our progress as societies.

But you already knew that, didn’t you…

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(1) Citation: Stephanie Ortigue, Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli, Nisa Patel, Chris Frum and James W. Lewis, ‘Neuroimaging of Love: fMRI Meta-Analysis Evidence toward New Perspectives in Sexual Medicine’, The Journal of Sexual MedicineDOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01999.x

* meta-analysis means that they used a statistical method which combined a number of studies for greater accuracy.

Love is a Dynamo – Part III


Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

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Girls of Sierra Leone #5
Sierra Leone, 2011: Aminata Sheriff and her daughter are at a health centre in Freetown. Primary health care for children and pregnant women is now free, a critical first step in ensuring a better future for girls and women. Sierra Leone’s civil war ended over ten years ago, but progress, especially for girls and women, remains slow. High rates of maternal and child mortality, early marriage, limited access to education and sexual abuse all threaten girls’ health and wellbeing.

Parenting the Soul – Butterfly Effects for Change


This is a most amazing story written by my friend, Ann O’Sullivan. Ann is a psychotherapist whose has begun an initiative called Parenting the Soul, which specializes in working with parents to help develop their children’s potential.

http://soulparenting.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/parenting-the-soul-an-introduction/

My next door neighbour, Eleanor, came to my door with a colourful bunch of garden flowers. Her seven-year old face beaming, she thrust them towards me.

‘These are for you,’ she said.

I received them delightedly, chatted for a while, cementing the bonds of genuine affection that were growing between us.

Eleanor had come to my neighbourhood a few years previously, her family having been relocated by the Council as part of an initiative to integrate problem families into more stable neighbourhoods. The initiative was having limited success. My old neighbours, resentful and unhappy, made no effort to integrate the new families. And the new families slept in their new homes, but returned to their old neighbourhoods for friendships and socializing. The best point of contact between me and my new neighbours was Eleanor, with whom I had become fast friends.

Two weeks later, she came to the door again, another bunch of flowers clutched in her chubby hand, telling me that she and her cousin Johnny had picked bunches of flowers and were selling them door to door at €2 each in order to make money for sweets.

I looked doubtfully over the hedge at the concrete apron that was her front garden, and smelled a rat. I had imagine that the previous bunch may have come from her Granny’s house, but several bunches? I didn’t think so.

Squatting down so that we were at eye level I said: ‘Darling, where did you and Johnny get the flowers?’ She gestured to an unoccupied house on the other side of mine.

‘In that back garden’ she replied.

I gently explained that the flowers weren’t hers to pick, they belonged to whoever owned the house.

‘But nobody owns that house!’ she told me triumphantly.

So I explained that somebody did own the house, they just didn’t live there. And so she shouldn’t pick the flowers because they weren’t hers. She was crestfallen, and a bit cross with me, and went away with a sullen little pout.

For a time there was a bit of bad feeling between us. Eleanor was angry with me for no matter how gentle and kindly I had tried to be, she had felt reprimanded. But I persevered in chatting with her whenever we met and eventually she got over it, and friendly relations were established between us again. She never mentioned the flowers again, and neither did I.

One year later, I was out and about in the garden, chatting to Sheila, a longtime friend and neighbour. Spotting Eleanor in the distance reminded her to tell me that a few weeks earlier when I had been away, Eleanor had knocked on her door. Gasping for breath from running, she pointed at the vacant house next door to mine and said: ‘My cousin Johnny is picking flowers in that garden and he shouldn’t be, because that’s not his house, it belongs to somebody else.’

Sheila spoke with Johnny while Eleanor looked smugly on, a small little girl who had learned, and internalized, a valuable lesson for the life of her soul.

The Still Face


Humans are social beings.  We’re not the only ones on the planet but we most definitely belong to that group.

Our interactions with other people do more than just shape our manners and our view of the world, these interactions actually shape our physical brains.  As the saying goes, neurons that fire together, wire together. 

As we lumber about in our lives, we often believe, erroneously, that only our big actions count.

If I don’t hit you or shout at you or curse or show my disdain I can tell myself I haven’t revealed anything of myself – or done any damage to you.

But what if that isn’t true?

What if our sensitivity to response is so ingrained in us and so long-standing that we don’t consciously recognise how subtly influenced – or influential – we can be?

Everybody knows that new-born babies respond to the world around them and we instinctively try to interact even with the youngest babies.  But do we realise how vital this seemingly trivial interaction really is?

Watch the video below – if you can handle it – it tells a very interesting story.