The Spirit Science
The human brain is an exquisitely sensitive instrument. It registers the slightest nuance of any experience you have ever had. This is no more evident than in love. Imagine someone whispering, “I love you.” In romantic terms these are desirable words – probably the most desirable any of us will ever hear.
The brain responds to ‘I love you” with an orchestration of positive reactions. People who are in love feel less stressed; their blood pressure goes down. When a couple who enjoys a long-term loving marriage hold hands, even their response to physical pain is strengthened.
These points and others in the same vein were detailed in a recent New York Times opinion piece called “The Brain on Love” by writer-poet Diane Ackerman. We found it an empathic article, one that celebrates human bonding from the first moment a newborn baby imprints on its mother. Bonding takes place via complex brain mechanisms that follow us throughout our lives.
The sense of oneness that characterizes a strong mother-child relationship morphs over time. It persists among happily married adults and gives such pleasure, as well as a sense of security, that our brains seek “at-one-ness” the way an addict seeks cocaine. Ackerman is quick to point out that love isn’t exactly the same as cocaine use, but her argument involves the same receptors for morphine-like chemicals in the brain as well as an impressive description of hormonal responses and other neurological particulars.
We have reached such a subtle state of brain research that the materialist fallacy gets trampled by thousands of brain scans “proving” that the brain registers love in so many ways. But the notion that the brain’s pleasure centers are the source of loving feelings isn’t necessarily true.
These centers are used to register and experience love. This is different from saying they generate love on their own. Ackerman is careful to point out that the brain’s pain centers are also vulnerable when we fall in love; the pain of being rejected triggers the same brain response as actual physical pain. Here is precisely where the argument for the brain in love – or on love – begins to fall apart.
If you stimulate a mouse’s brain with a pleasurable experience, such as giving it food, the mouse will return again and again to get more stimuli. This is a predictable, mechanical reaction. The same isn’t remotely true for humans. Put a tempting bowl of pasta in front of a person, and it is entirely unpredictable what the response will be. The person may say such things as “I don’t like pasta,” I’m on a diet,” “I don’t like how this dish is made,” or give no reason at all for pushing the plate away.
We are perverse, if viewed as higher mammals. We make choices that have nothing to do with how the brain is programmed. We make decisions that are new, creative, surprising, and utterly unconditioned. Unfortunately for materialism, machines follow preset instructions; the brain doesn’t. Its reactions are part of a feedback loop that is ultimately controlled by the mind.
Let’s say you are well loved but it’s 1942, you are French, and the wartime resistance has asked you to go underground to fight the Nazis. Your decision will be based on all kinds of factors: conscience, patriotism, risk, danger, politics, history, and more. The fact that you were imprinted by a loving mother enters the equation, but so what? Many a resistance fighter left behind a loving wife and children.
Materialism is insulting to our spirit, and when new findings about the brain emerge, as they do every day, to explain why you do what you do, feel what you feel, and want what you want, please take it all with a huge grain of salt. For a lover of music, it’s not necessary to know the inner workings of a grand piano; far better to study Mozart and the meaning of beauty.
The bottom line is that our brains allow us to register and express feelings like love and benevolence through electrochemical activation of specific brain regions and neurochemicals. But, we are also imbued with the ability to choose how we wish to deal with those feelings. Mindfully making choices transcends the simple stimulus-response automations of our neural networks and truly defines who we are.