February 20, 2014 by libroshombre
If the Gallup pollsters survey of the world’s “most loved countries” is to be believed, it’s time to move to Rwanda. A recent article from TheAtlantic.com described how Gallup asked people in 136 countries if they’d experienced love the previous day, and about seventy percent replied affirmatively. Astonishingly, Rwanda came in second, with 92 percent of responders feeling loved, one behind the Phillipines. The U.S., with 81 percent, came in 26th, which is above average but trails Cyprus (88 percent), Lebanon (86 percent) and Cambodia (85 percent), all known for internecine proclivities. The least love’s being felt in Mongolia and Uzbekistan (both 32 percent), and Armenia (29 percent).
The data’s a few years old and the polling techniques might be questioned. Love’s a wide slippery subject. For example, I love libraries innately, the way ducks love water. Yet it’s distinct from my love of books and reading, as are my loves for my family, chocolate ice cream, and seeing the aurora. Defining love’s like nailing jello.
Now love’s being explored scientifically through interpersonal neurobiology, a recent interdisciplinary approach drawing from fields ranging from anthropology and mathematics to developmental psychopathology and systems theory. It’s described in a 2012 NY Times article by Diane Ackerman, who wrote that “interpersonal neurobiology draws its vigor from one of the great discoveries of our era: that the brain is constantly rewiring itself … what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
We grew up hearing that brain development ends in early adulthood, but “as a wealth of [brain] imaging studies highlight, the neural alchemy continues throughout life.” It starts with mom, according to Dr. Dan Siegel, a prominent UCLA medical school professor and leading researcher in interpersonal neurobiology. He believes that when we’re mothered properly, we feel “the indelible sense of ‘feeling felt.’” Ackerman adds that “the body remembers how that oneness with mother felt, and longs for its adult equivalent.”
Our post-mom relationships are important to brain structure, too, especially loving ones. Siegel says other supportive relationships in life enhance “longevity, medical and mental health, happiness, and even wisdom” and re-wire our brains in the process. When we fall in love, there’s an enormous learning curve, and, Ackerman adds, “a tornadic blast of attractions and attachment hormones.” We begin “glimpsing the world through another’s eyes, adapting old habits and adopting new ones, experiencing new friends and families,” and “all of it revamps the brain.”
Brain-scans have shown that becoming “we” instead of “I” affects the brain powerfully, especially with long-term couples. The “reward centers” in the brains of new lovers, cocaine users, and old, happily married couples all glow, but only the latter group’s brains also registered high activity in the areas involved with pleasure and pain relief, and low activity in those associated with fear and anxiety. In other words, “a happy marriage relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby.”
Research into the reading brain has revealed similar lifelong rewiring. Reading digital screens is very different from reading a novel. “Your Brain on Fiction,” another intriguing NY Times article, cites studies showing that reading “narratives activate many other parts of our brains” besides the main parts associated with reading, like the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.
For example, Emory University researchers found “that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” … roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” … did not.” This applies to smells, sounds, and muscles, too. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”
“Fiction … offers an especially rich replica.” And other studies show that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective.” Sounds like a good reason for anyone to visit the public library’s richly varied fiction shelves, check out a few novels and feel the love.