Oxford

temperance

In light of Valentine’s Day, first, an intriguing article dissecting love:

Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.

Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day.

You have to physically be with the person to experience the micro-moment. For example, if you and your significant other are not physically together—if you are reading this at work alone in your office—then you two are not in love. You may feel connected or bonded to your partner—you may long to be in his company—but your body is completely loveless.

I don’t agree with the last paragraph. I’ve felt powerful emotions across distances, and that yearning constitutes an indicator of the presence of love, for me. But the redefinition of love as a “micro-moment of positivity resonance” – that’s cute, and true, though not exclusively so, of course.

Like all emotions, love has a biochemical and physiological component. But unlike some of the other positive emotions, like joy or happiness, love cannot be kindled individually—it only exists in the physical connection between two people. Specifically, there are three players in the biological love system—mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. Each involves connection and each contributes to those micro-moment of positivity resonance that Fredrickson calls love.

What they found was remarkable. In some cases, the brain patterns of the listener mirrored those of the storyteller after a short time gap. The listener needed time to process the story after all. In other cases, the brain activity was almost perfectly synchronized; there was no time lag at all between the speaker and the listener. But in some rare cases, if the listener was particularly tuned in to the story—if he was hanging on to every word of the story and really got it—his brain activity actually anticipated the story-teller’s in some cortical areas.

The mutual understanding and shared emotions, especially in that third category of listener, generated a micro-moment of love, which “is a single act, performed by two brains,” as Fredrickson writes in her book.

The account of anticipatory brain activity is amazing – highlights the inscrutability of human connection, I think, its dependence on the vicissitudes of brain chemistry. You wonder sometimes what makes some people dearer to you, inexplicably. I chart my affection for people almost reflexively; it bewilders and humbles me in turn, to navigate the uncertain tides and eddies of my sentiments. A sea too placid is just as unnerving as a turbulent one, and I imagine myself in a modest keelboat of sorts sometimes, bobbing on a sail and a prayer. I find that the attachment I associate with friendship depends on a series of infinite moments of good will, which eventually reaches a self-sustaining critical mass of positivity that propels the relationship forward. Proximity and regular, spontaneous contact promote that, or at least, a level of familiarity I find key to developing that.

There are many different causes for friendship, of course. Chiefly here I have noticed that it is gestures of unsolicited kindness that surprises bursts of affection and gratitude in me, and then also, attitudes and/or mentalities I find myself admiring.

Fredrickson likes to call love a nutrient. If you are getting enough of the nutrient, then the health benefits of love can dramatically alter your biochemistry in ways that perpetuate more micro-moments of love in your life, and which ultimately contribute to your health, well-being, and longevity.

I would say it has been a week of indulgences, and some unbridled emoting. The weekend will be spent relearning temperance, I hope – or at least cultivating discipline.

Also, a poem, with exquisitely powerful imagery in the final line:

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

– a renewal, james merrill

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