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10 Reasons We Love Love

Research shows being in love is good for your health, and can even make you less sensitive to pain.
 
 
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The riddle is as old as the spark between the first man and woman who ever locked eyes across a cave: Why do we love?

Those first hunters and gatherers likely got together so they wouldn’t starve to death alone. For millennia, practicality ruled. Status, wealth, her family’s number of cows — these were far more important reasons to choose a mate than some fuzzy notion of romantic connection.

Since then, things have changed. We seek out the spark any way we can. Love today is a big business — see dating sites, pop songs, romance novels, rom-coms, Hallmark, etc. But if you believe love is overhyped, think again.

According to renowned couples therapist and relationship researcher Dr. Sue Johnson, the desire for that explosive, shout-it-from-the-rooftops, knee-melting connection with another human being is actually the prime driver of our species. We are hard-wired to form deep bonds with another person — bonds that can measurably enhance our lives.

In her new book  “Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships,” Dr. Johnson shares a number of compelling studies that reveal the beneficial effects of love. Forget the divorce rate and the disenchanted — turns out the spark has been a pretty big deal all along.

1. Love lessens our physical perception of pain and threat

In a groundbreaking experiment, Dr. Jim Coan at the University of Virginia gathered a group of happily married women and put them in a functional MRI machine. (Rather than just showing static, structural images of the brain, this type of MRI measures which areas “light up” when a person is exposed to various stimuli.)

Once in the machines, the women were shown pictures of x’s and small circles. They were told that when they saw an x, there was a 20 percent chance that an electric shock would be delivered to their ankles. After they received each shock, they rated how much it hurt.

At various times, the women faced the threat alone, with a stranger holding their hands, or with their husbands holding their hands.

When they were alone and saw an x, alarm signals raged through their brain. They rated subsequent shocks as very painful. But then the study took a fascinating turn. The presence of strangers diminished their alarm and pain, though the shocks were the same strength. And when their husbands were by their sides, their brains barely responded to the threat of the x’s — and they rated the shocks as merely uncomfortable.

On a neurobiological level, love makes us feel safe.

“It helps us deal with our pure existential anxieties that we are small, vulnerable human beings in a great big indifferent world,” Dr. Johnson says.

2. Loving contact in very early life benefits emotional development

The catch phrase in evolutionary psychology is no longer the “survival of the fittest,” but rather, “survival of the most nurtured.”

Psychologist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal did a study showing that rats who were intensely nurtured with lots of licking and grooming as pups grew up to handle danger and fear more adaptively than their less-loved counterparts.

Such highly nurtured rats remained calm even when researchers dropped them into canisters of water. The rats also registered lower levels of stress hormones than the neglected group.

3. Loving contact in childhood can “switch off” bad genes

The geneticist Danielle Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University collected DNA from 400 adolescents who had been followed from birth. She analyzed their genetic profiles for variations in a gene called CHRM2 that is associated with alcohol dependence, antisocial behavior and depression.

 
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