Optimal emotional stimulation involves positive emotional engagement in our lives, our work, and our relationships.
The brain can be divided into three layers, a reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. Reptilian brain, the most primitive one, is related to physical survival, body maintenance and instinctive behaviour patterns. The second layer, the limbic system, is responsible for our emotions and interactions with others. Finally, the neocortex is responsible for our rational skills and decision-making.
Being interconnected with the two other layers, the limbic system is crucial to our wellbeing as it relies heavily on our emotions and relationships with others. From being a source of information and communication to being a direction of action, emotions are central to how we perceive the world. And it is no surprise that it affects neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells), our emotional states (depression) and even immunity.
How important are relationships
Deeply connected to our emotions are the relationships we surround ourselves with. As psychology has deepened its understanding of the psyche, we now see that people are fundamentally relational creatures. We understand that success in life is tied to social intelligence more than any other factor. At the same time, the lack of close relationships has the opposite effect and is diagnostic in many psychological disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, and other psychoses.
Positive relationships are critical to our wellbeing
There is a close connection in human beings between feeling good and the quality of our relationships. We can feel good on our own, do things individually, complete a job, a work of art, or reach a personal goal, however, at the end of the day, we want to connect with others, show them our work, and hope that they will enjoy it with us.
It is only through relationships that we grow as individuals. Interestingly, individuation is not opposed to our need for relationships but dependent upon it. We may not be dependent upon any one relationship, but we are interdependent with other people. We become our fullest selves in and through a network of relationships.
Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, M.D., once compared our need for supportive, loving relationships to our need for oxygen. Without oxygen we could not survive. Without good relationships, after just a week of isolation, our self-structure becomes fragile and fragmented.
Love Increases Neurogenesis
We all need love. Throughout our lives - from the time we are born till our last breath, to love and to be loved is our core need. Therefore it is not surprising that romantic love, making love (sexual experience), loving relationships with family, pets and friendships increase the growth of new brain cells.
When we don’t get love or give love, something inside us shrivels up including our brains.
Love in all its forms increases neurogenesis by increasing the ‘love/ bonding’ hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is released during experiences such as:
- Immediately after childbirth and during nursing
- Bonding and attachment
- Close relationships
- Emotional intimacy
When men and woman kiss or hug, oxytocin levels soar. A single 30 min episode of male-female interaction increased growth of new brain cells in one species of rats. Female mice showed increase in neurogenesis simply from being around a male mouse for a short period each day for two weeks. However, most studies with other mammals indicate that ongoing sexual experience is necessary for neurogenesis to occur.
When we have a variety of loving relationships, all parts of us can thrive.
Interestingly, being a parent might have more negative than positive effects on our neurogenesis. Parenting can be one of the most fulfilling things in life. Dr. Gould first discovered that oxytocin increases neurogenesis (the hormone that is released immediately after childbirth and during nursing) , she naturally assumed that parenting would be one avenue of love that would enhance neurogenesis. However, she soon learned that this assumption was wrong, due to the complex nature of being a parent. As every parent will attest, being a parent is also very stressful for both mothers and fathers and it seems to out weight the benefits in terms of neurogenesis.
Negative relationships should be limited or removed
There is a great deal of evidence showing that negative relationships impair our neurogenesis as it is linked with stress and anxiety. The same way we have good and bad relationships, there is good and bad stress. Good stress is moderate and temporary, while bad stress is intensive and chronic. Just like exercising stresses your muscles and makes you stronger, short-term emotional stress builds you up and makes you stronger. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is dangerous in the same way continuous exercise is - eroding strength and destroying muscle tissue.
When we apply this to relationships, it is important to develop those relationships that protect from stress and reduce those that produce stress. Loving friends, supportive co-workers, teachers, mentors, and peers are crucial in our everyday lives.
Social instability also decreases neurogenesis
Social instability is another form of social stress that decreases neurogenesis. It is caused when we surrounding ourselves into ever-changing social environments which lead to having too much social reality to interpret. Ultimately, neurogenesis slows down and constant stress of unstable relationships (new relationships) takes a toll on the brain.
The same effect can happen when people are being humiliated, bullied or discriminated. It is important to remember that a single event does not harm our brain, rather, it requires continual exposure to a toxic relationship that would lead to brain shrinkage, impaired immunity, and depression. Just like anything in moderation is healthy and anything on either side of the bell curve for a extended period of time is damaging.
What can we do to lessen stressful relationships and improve our wellbeing?
It is important to take a break to focus on something else so the body can return to homeostatic balance. For example, a yoga class, a camping trip, an afternoon in nature, dancing, music, good talk with a friend or a person you trust and anything else that can help the body relax.
Our beliefs, our capacity to find counterbalancing experiences and alternate sources of nourishment, our ability to create predictability and achieve a sense of control help us cope with chronic stress.
Working through conflict and anger constructively, learning to become emotionally vulnerable and intimate with close friends and family, deepening the capacity for love and empathy will be prized skills that allow everyone to feel emotionally connected.
Supper and talk
If you would like to find out more about love and relationships, join our Supper Club and Talk on “Science of Love” on the 18th of October.