Scientists are just starting to grasp how relationships change our brains, literally altering the circuits that make our memories, emotions, and ourselves. They knew that mothers were intensely in sync with their babies. But what they didn’t know is that as babies grow, their bodies remember that bond they had with Mom and search through an adult equivalent, something that (as we all know) causes friendships, affairs, crushes, romance, and possibly a soul mate.

And it behooves us to search for this thing called love. “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span,” Dr. Daniel J. Siegel of the University of California says.

I can see that. Getting into a serious relationship is like traveling to a new country or like trying new exercises at the gym. You can’t be lazy. You try new things. You have to meet his friends. You have to go on vacation with her parents. You step out of your comfort zone. You try the foods she prefers. You do new activities with him. You watch and listen to new things. You learn how you are perceived. Your knowledge about humanity expands. Your brain stops thinking “I” and instead thinks “we”. And you get to have a ton of sex. All of which “revamp the brain.”

And you are rewarded. Take this experiment:

James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, conducted experiments in 2020 in which he gave an electric shock to the ankles of women in happy, committed relationships. Tests registered their anxiety before, and pain level during, the shocks. Then they were shocked again, this time holding their loving partner’s hand. The same level of electricity produced a significantly lower neural response throughout the brain. In troubled relationships, this protective effect didn’t occur.

Another study scanned the brains of self-described “madly in love” long-married couples. Staring at a picture of their partner lit up the reward centers of their brains — the same thing that happened with madly-in-love newly weds (and cocaine users, interestingly enough). That was expected. But the long-married couples’ brain scans displayed calm in sites associated with fear and anxiety. Maternal love also spiked. (As the New York Times points out, “Small wonder ‘Baby’ is a favorite adult endearment.”) I wonder if we should just give people bran scans if they are considering divorce. Are you curious about what your scan would look like? Or do you think you’d know?

When I first read about this, I was surprised this kind of study is just coming out now. Didn’t we always know that love is good for you? But thinking back to my grandparents, my great aunts and uncles, I am reminded that choosing a partner for love, not necessity, is new. And so finding that there are health benefits to this new kind of love is news, indeed. My Aunt Annie and Uncle Buddy married because their parents made them. It made sense for their family businesses. I get to choose my partner. Is that selfish? They might have thought so. They might have thought that un-arranged marriages were silly, semi-worthless. But no, I guess they’re not. I’ll be happier, healthier, and smarter. Maybe.

[The New York Times]