The Neuropsychology of Long Lasting Love: Can Brain Scans Tell Us Something Useful About Staying in Love?

The Wall Street Journal today has an article called Keeping Love Alive, which documents some fascinating research looking at why a small minority of long-term couples seem to maintain intense passionate loving connections.

First the grim background to these findings. Keeping love alive is no mean feat, as the research on long-term relationships suggests that for most couples love is a fading affair.

From the article:

“Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and PennStateUniversity kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.”

This is not such good news for all of us in long-term relationships. What do we have to look forward to? A sharp decline in happiness for the first ten years, and then a slow erosion of whatever remaining happiness is left until we run out of love or time, whichever comes first? Ugggh!

But then to the rescue comes Arthur Aron, who is a social psychologist at StonyBrookUniversity. He’s looked at those unusual couples who claim that their love is just an intense years later. It’s a strategy of research which is called examining the outliers, those people who fall outside the averages.

Aron and his students are studying these couples in an interesting way. They are taking pictures of their brain function, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They have a person lie inside an MRI machine, and look at pictures of their spouse while measuring the activity in their brain.

What have they found? It turns out that when these passionate couples look at or think about their spouses, a part of their brain called the ventral tegnmental area lights up. This is a section of the brain that is rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to our ability to feel pleasure and joy. The results have been duplicated in China, suggesting this is not just a western cultural phenomenon.

So what does this all mean? It’s not of much help in the challenges that I face as a marriage therapist, in helping couples repair damaged love. One of the interesting details reported in the article was that these passionate long-term “in love” couples show one behavior in common. They are constantly affectionate, kissing, hugging, and holding hands. They display many PDA’s (public displays of affection).

Now that there is a brain measure of this intense love, it is important to study how people get there. Are these couples just more intensely in love to begin with? Perhaps it works like cognitive functioning, where those who start off smarter and more educated deteriorate more slowly in old age. Maybe these passionate couples simply start with more love and then it erodes, but they have such an excess that it doesn’t matter.

We might be able to answer some of these questions with a long-term study of new couples that followed them over 10 years or longer.

Is it a selection process, where better mate selection leads to better long term outcomes? Or are there behavioral differences, a set of behaviors and attitudes that preserves love? These are the key issues in answering the question of how do we go about Keeping Love Alive.

What I find deeply fascinating is that in spite of the fact that most people value love as one of the most important things in their lives, we actually know very little about what predicts success, and even less about how to help people love better. Brain scans may tell us more about the process of love and attraction, but unless we develop a “love beam” that changes the activity of the key brain regions, it won’t help us fall in love and stay in love.

…Excuse me, I’ve got to go kiss my sweetie!

Copyright © 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

All Rights reserved (Any web links must credit this site, and must include a link back to thissite.)

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Is There an Equation for Happiness?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a mathematical equation that could predict and explain happiness? We could tweak the numbers and get happy! Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?

Actually this equation exists. It looks like this:

Happiness-equation

 

 

A researcher named Robb Rutledge, at the Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research, developed this equation. It figures that such an equation would be developed at an institution whose name is 12 words long! Rutledge developed this equation based on outcomes from a smart phone app called The Great Brain Experiment. The data was derived from 25,189 players of the app, a pretty good sample size!

Let me explain this equation to you. I will leave out the weird Sigma symbols and the small w constants and just explain the letters.

Basically, happiness depends on CR which stands for Certain Rewards or safe choices plus expectations associated with risky choices (EV, expected value), and the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation which is called a reward prediction error (RPE).

So the key idea is that happiness doesn’t so much depend on how things are going, but how they are going compared to your expectations. Let’s use an example. You make plans to go to a new restaurant with your sweetie. You looked up the restaurant on various restaurant review sites, and it gets very positive reviews. You go to the restaurant and the meal is very good, but not quite as good as the reviews suggest. Your happiness decreases. Or you go to a restaurant that has mediocre reviews, and it’s actually pretty good. Your happiness goes up.

This may be why online dating is so difficult. People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person. When they meet the person their expectations are higher than reality, and they experience disappointment and unhappiness.

So the way to be happier is to have low expectations? Some researchers have suggested this is why Danish people are so happy. The Danes have a pretty good life, but they have lower expectations than people in many other countries, thus a higher level of happiness.

The only problem with this idea is that many choices in our life take a long time to reveal how they will work out, such as marriage and taking a new job or moving to a new city. Having higher expectations for these slow-to-reveal choices probably increases happiness, at least allows the person to hang in with the decision long enough to find out how it will work out.

In general, accurate expectations may be best. Of course, the challenge is how to have accurate expectations. Reading both negative and positive reviews of a restaurant or a product may help with this. But there’s no site that reviews your marriage or your current job so those kinds of choices may be more of a challenge.

The same researchers also looked at brain scans and figured out that it appeared that dopamine levels reflect happiness changes, higher dopamine comes from increased happiness and lower dopamine comes from disappointment.

There are some practical implications of this research.

  1. For choices that have immediate feedback such as a restaurant or a movie, temper your expectations. Maybe read more negative reviews so that your expectations are lower for the event. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when the restaurant or the movie is better than expected. This also applies to online dating.
  1. For choices that you don’t get quick feedback about such as long-term decisions like marriage or a job, have reasonably high expectations., Or at least try to have realistic expectations.
  1. Lower other people’s expectations of shared choices rather than hyping the choices. For example, let’s imagine you have recently seen a movie that you loved. Don’t tell your friends it was the best movie you’ve ever seen and that it will change their lives, instead tell them it was a pretty good movie and leave out all details. Same with restaurants, cars, and other choices that we make. Downplay rather than overhype.

Now I have to go because I have reservations at that new five-star restaurant after which I’m going to that wonderful new film, and then I’m moving to Denmark! Wish me luck.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Thoughts about Online Dating: Why you should go offline if you want to find a partner!

Scientific American recently had a terrific article about the reality behind online dating, which shows scientifically what psychologists have known for a long time. Online dating doesn’t work very well.

The data is fascinating. The biggest problem is deception. Twenty percent of online daters admit openly to deception, but the real numbers are probably closer to 90% since that’s the number most online daters say fits the other daters online.

Everyone, male and female, adds about 1 inch of height. Everyone is attractive, in a strange sort of Lake Woebegone world, only 1% of online daters say they are less than average attractive. Wow! A world of movie stars and models. If only!

Women lie a lot about their weight. In their 20’s they lower their real weight by an average of five pounds, in their 30’s this “error” goes up to 17 pounds, and in their 40’s they are deceptively reporting their weight as an average of 19 lbs. under their real weight!

Everyone lies about their age. Men will say they are 36 rather than 37-41. Women say they are 29 rather than 30-34. They also like the ages of 35 and 44 rather than their real ages.

All this would be fine if the services worked. But they don’t. There is a terrific White Paper written by Philip Zimbardo, Mark Thompson, and Glenn Hutchinson: CONSUMERS ARE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT ONLINE DATING.

In it Zimbardo, a former president of the American Psychological Association, concludes about one popular service, “When eHarmony recommends someone as a compatible match, there is a 1 in 500 chance that you’ll marry this person…. Given that eHarmony delivers about 1.5 matches a month, if you went on a date with all of them, it would take 346 dates and 19 years to reach [a] 50% chance of getting married.”

Other services overpromise and undeliver too. Match.com claims 15 million members, but only 1 million are paying members, which means that only 1 in 15 “member” can even reply to emails. This sets users up for rejection when they contact a user who is not able to respond.

In general, there are probably far fewer Americans than advertised using online dating services, and surveys suggest that less than 25% of them are satisfied.

There is also the “click” problem. This is where singles, thinking there is an infinite supply of available singles, will click away the instant they detect any flaws or problems. And most only allow for one date with potential mates, since why spend time getting to know someone when there is probably someone better over the online horizon.

So, online dating promises deception about appearance, age, income, and other things, and sets you up for disappointment and rejection. And yet it has become the way that many tech-savvy singles use to meet people.

Why? I think it’s because we’ve gotten too timid and afraid of the real world. There are a million opportunities to meet people in the offline world. But it takes a little courage and chutzpah to meet them.

The real world offers some real advantages. In the real world, you get to see people and there is no deception in terms of appearance (other than good lighting or makeup or elevator shoes). Age you can evaluate by appearance and personality you can quickly ascertain. Let me give you some suggestions for how to meet people in the real world.

Women, start by getting over your fear of flirting. Men are eager to approach you and talk with you, you just have to show them with smiles and eye contact that they won’t be rejected if they do. If you see a guy you think is cute, smile at him. Go up to him and ask him any question, it doesn’t matter. Start a conversation with him. This could be in a café, bar, restaurant, or bookstore. It doesn’t matter. If he is interested he will talk with you, and if you hit it off, he may ask you for your phone number. But if he is timid, he may chicken out, so if you like him, don’t let him get away. Suggest that you exchange cell phone numbers or email addresses so you can “get a cup of coffee sometime.” This will overcome the fear of most men, and if he demurs, then it’s probably because he is either not interested or not available. (You might want to look him in the eye, and ask him point blank, “do you have a girlfriend or a wife?”)

Men, you too must get over your fear of flirting and rejection. Start by talking to women more. Talk in line at the post office, at your favorite café, in the store, at work, etc. Learn how to make women laugh, that’s the thing most women like in a man. And don’t be afraid to ask a woman for her phone number or email address. What’s the worst thing that will happen? She might say no. Big deal!

If you really want to make it easy, start by looking around your workplace for attractive potential partners. Or join a biking or hiking club, and get to know its members. The main thing is to get out of your apartment or house, and go places where people hang out, and start to talk with them, flirt with them, and get comfortable asking them to coffee, drinks, lunch, or dinner. The offline world is full of exciting, attractive people, all you have to do is put down your mouse, close your laptop computer, and go out into the real world!

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.