If we are so smart, why do we make such foolish choices on who we choose to love? Does love make us foolish? Is it truly out of our control? French physicist Blaise Pascal once wrote, ”the heart has reasons that reason cannot comprehend.” Fortunately, that may not be true.
Now there’s a scientific explanation on why we choose who we love and how that changes who we are at the core. The answer: blame it on our limbic system.
The limbic system is the part of our brain that drives our motivation, emotion, and learning, and if left unchecked most often runs on the default of old memories and the familiar. While at one point this was a necessary function for our survival (i.e., we’ve learned to remember that all hungry tigers will eat you, so run), as we evolve, we haven’t quite figured out how to be the master of our limbic system, which can get us into trouble when it comes to meaningful relationships.
Why are some women attracted to “the bad boy”? Why are some men attracted to the “bitchy control freak”?
As humans, the primordial area of our brain is responsible for creating both the capacity and the need for emotional intimacy. The limbic system is only ONE part of three other very important systems (the other two being our reptilian brain that tells our body to breathe, and our neocortex that allows us to read, write, and speak) in our brain that help us succeed in all areas of our life. As you can imagine, without a careful balance, we end up making some pretty bad choices in life.
As children, we often first experience what we eventually define as “love” from our parents. This comes in the form of both how they treat us, how they treat others, and how they treat themselves. They, in essence, mold into our brains and hearts what it looks like and feels like to be “loved” and we carry this message of love with us in our brains and hearts for the rest of our lives. If the message we carry is good, we may end up having positive experiences. If it isn’t, we end up having less than positive experiences.
Naturally, as we live our lives, those we “love” and are loved by tend to slowly edit in our brains how we define “love”. Perhaps someone comes along and shows us a much better version of love and we take that and run with it. There are cases when someone comes along and shows us a very painful version of love and we take that. Naturally, who we choose to love becomes a very big decision. Who shall we open our hearts to? It is this person who will forever mold us and change us for the better or worse…
“In a relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors [coteries of ingrained information patterns] activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.
Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”
Without balance, we will either overthink, not think at all, or overly rely on an emotionally unstable box of scattered and conflicting dramas to lead us to “the right person.” We can’t use just our intelligence in choosing a partner, yet we can’t just go with our feelings. It requires careful balance and a serious level of self-honesty, investigating our deepest selves: Who am I? What do I believe? Why do I believe that? What do I want, and WHY do I want that?
Sadly, most people will choose misery with a partner their limbic brain recognizes as familiar, over the less dramatic pleasure of a ‘nice’ relationship because the latter is unfamiliar.
I personally believe that neither is wrong nor right. In the end, it rteally depends on what is going to get you where you want to go. Where do you want to go in this one precious life?
For me, I’d rather pursue the latter. The healthy relationship, the loving, supportive relationship. What does this look like? I haven’t got a clue, but I do know what unhealthy feels like.
And if our limbic system is simply a collection of the familiar, then perhaps the real goal here is to simply disallow the unhealthy by walking away from it entirely, and surrounding myself with healthy relationships. Through this, slowly, the unhealthy images are replaced via prolonged contact with a caring, wise, responsive people. Over time, we develop new neural connections in our brain, not just changing the limbic system, but our neocortex as well.
So what does a “healthy” relationship look like? It looks like love. It feels like love. But what is “real” love when we haven’t experienced it before?
When we are truly loved we feel good about ourselves. When the presence of someone awakens the feeling of being happy with WHO YOU ARE, leading you to be happy with who you are becoming, is probably the direction you’d want to go.
How do you feel in the presence of your loved one? This will determine the degree to which you flourish.
In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You know you’re in love when you don’t want to fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”