For many years, neuroscientist Stephanie Ortig thought the answer was yes to the question: Can we live without love?
Although she researched the science of human relationships, Ortig was unable to fully realize its importance in her life.
In her new book, Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection, she writes, “I thought disengagement made me a more objective researcher: I could investigate love without being under the spell of it.”
But then, in 2011, at the age of 37, she met John Cassiobo at a neuroscience conference in Shanghai. His interest was piqued by Cassiopo, who promoted the concept that prolonged loneliness could be as harmful to health as smoking. The two scientists married and took her surname, and quickly became colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine (where she now heads the Brain Dynamics Laboratory) – with a team trained at home and in the laboratory.
Wired for Love is a neurobiological story about how love rewires the brain. It’s also a personal love story – a story that took a sad turn when John died of cancer in March 2018. In an interview, Ortig explains exactly what love does to the brain, how to fight loneliness and how love is, quite literally, a product. of the imagination.
The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity, via The Independent:
Q: You went from happily single to married and then lost your husband. How did meeting her give life to your search for love?
A: When we first met, we talked for three hours, but I didn’t feel like I was running out of time. I felt euphoric – from the dopamine rush. I blushed – a sign of adrenaline. It came from the activation of mirror neurons, a network of brain cells that fire when you move or feel something, and when you see someone else move. And when you have a strong connection with someone, the mirror neuron system is enhanced.
Soon we became “us”. When John was sick, she went to his radiotherapy. We shared a hospital bed. We were always together.
Q: What exactly happens to the brain when we are in love?
A: When we fall in love with someone, the first thing we notice is how good they feel. This is because the brain releases feel-good neurotransmitters that boost our mood. And when you find love, it’s like biological fireworks. Our heart rate is also elevated. Levels of the so-called love hormone, oxytocin, increase, making us feel connected. And our norepinephrine and neurotransmitter levels rise, making us lose track of time, our adrenaline levels rise, dilating the capillaries in our cheeks and making us blush.
During this time, levels of serotonin, a key hormone in regulating appetite and intrusive thoughts, plummet. So when we’re in love, we may find ourselves eating irregularly or focusing on the small details, worrying about sending the “perfect text”, “saying the perfect words”, and then texting back. or the phone call over and over again in the brain.
Then, as we begin to feel a deep sense of calm and contentment with our partner, areas of the brain that not only trigger basic emotions but also lead to more complex cognitive functions are activated. This can lead to many positive results, such as less pain, more empathy, better memory, and greater creativity. Romantic love is like a superpower that makes the brain thrive.
Q: Is love necessary for survival?
A: Love is a biological necessity, just like water, exercise or food. My research has convinced me that a healthy emotional life – which can include your beloved partner, your closest circle of friends, your family and even your favorite sports team – is also essential to the well-being of a person that a good diet.
And love – in the global sense that I now understand of the term – is the opposite of loneliness. And when we look at the absence of positive, healthy relationships, we see a litany of physical and mental defects – from depression and high blood pressure to diabetes and sleep disturbances.
And if you don’t feel like you have a meaningful relationship, it’s like you’re socially thirsty, and your brain is sending a signal to tell you that you need help from your social body. It triggers some of the same alarms that go off when people are thirsty, when they feel socially disconnected from others. And the key isn’t to suppress those feelings, it’s to help us survive. We are supposed to do something about it.
Q: But is there still a stigma to admitting that we are alone?
A: No one feels guilty when they’re thirsty, do they? Thus, no one should feel guilty when alone.
There is a paradox in loneliness. And we want to get closer to others, but a lonely mind has been so alone for so long that it detects more threats – inaccurately of course – and makes you want to withdraw rather than approach others.
Q: What advice would you give to those who are struggling to find love or connect with others?
A: Love should not be with a living person. If you really love life, with your passion, with your hobby, it can also be a barrier against loneliness.
Q: How do we help isolated people who are dear to us?
A: For years people have thought that to help lonely people, you have to bring them together. But the worst thing you can do to a lonely person is to try to help them without asking for help in return. Instead, we need to help them gain a new sense of worth. We can seek their advice, demonstrate respect, autonomy, and your understanding of your importance—all of these things can give a single person a sense of worth and belonging that reduces feelings of isolation.
Q: Does long-distance love, love after a breakup, or love for someone who has died affect the brain in the same way?
A: Yes, you can keep in touch with others even if you are alone in a room, close your eyes now and think of the person you love the most. Now think about the last time you made them laugh out loud. Does this make you smile? We store these positive memories in our minds and we can access them at any time. We have a remote control.