[Paleopsych] Inner Worlds: Brain science and romantic love
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Brain science and romantic love
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THE SENSED PRESENCE AND ROMANTIC LOVE
Love seems to be an experience of the 'other.' Even though it's really
about ourselves, we experience it as being to do with another person.
To see more deeply into it, we need to look at the experience of 'the
other' more deeply.
There hasn't been a lot of research on the subject. There are many
studies that have yielded interesting statistics about how being in
love affects academic performance, how it affects the immune system,
how it influences the perceived quality of life, and a range of other
findings. But the experience itself remains elusive, especially in
terms of neurology.
There is one line of research that suggests something about the nature
of love, and it seems that love is only instance of a larger group of
experiences: relating to the 'other'. After looking at the evidence,
it seems to me that the 'other' is one's self.
I'm thinking of some research into an experience called "The Sensed
Presence." Its that feeling people get, usually at night, where they
feel that there is someone or something in the room with them, an
'energy' or a 'presence' perhaps. They might feel simply that they are
'not alone' or that they're 'being watched.' There is an indefinable
feeling that there is an 'other' of some kind in the room with them.
To understand this, we need to look at the self, and not the other.
To start, we need to see that the self is more than our ordinary
experience shows us. Even in our most quiet moments, when we are
still, it can be very hard to see our 'self'. Buddhism teaches that
there is no such thing. If they're right, then we're on a wild goose
chase in looking for it. Other religions say that the self is God. If
these teachings are right, then our self is so elevated that we may
have no hope of ever understanding it.
Fortunately, brain science is a bit more down-to-earth than religion.
There, we have a chance of understanding what the self is, even though
the information won't tell us the whole story.
The latest 'teachings' from neuroscience tell us that we actually have
two selves, one on each side of the brain. And they're specialized.
Like anything else in the brain, they each have specific jobs to do.
One of them, on the left, is the one that experiences things through
language. It's very socialized. Language is mostly a tool for relating
to other people, so the 'linguistic' self is very conscious of where
it stands with others. Its very sensitive to its social rank, as its
reflected in the words of others. A simple string of words from
another, like: 'you're fired' or 'I love you', can have an amazing
impact on the person hearing them. They'll feel that 'they' are
affected by these words. And they, as social beings, have been. When
we lose a job, our social rank is reduced. When we start a new
relationship, or we can feel that we are secure in a present one, our
social rank is raised a bit.
The other side of the brain, on the right, also has a self. It
experiences the world in non-verbal ways. Its more introspective. Its
silent. Its affected by music, art, pictures, and our perceptions of
how others feel, rather than what others say. Its more likely to
manifest in situations where we aren't able to take the need of others
into account. Its usually subordinate; operating underneath the left
hemispheric one. It takes this role because the linguistic self is
actively interpreting the world and our experiences with words all the
time. For most people, this keeps the silent self hidden, so that it
operates without out knowing about it consciously. In many ways, the
'conscious' self is the one on the left, with only intermittent input
from the one on the right.
The Sensed Presence experience occurs when our two senses of self fall
out of phase with one another. The subordinate sense of self is
experienced directly by the dominant, linguistic one. Because we can't
have two senses of self, the intruding silent sense of self is
experienced as an external presence, and 'felt' to be happening
outside one's self.
I believe that the sensed presence also happens when we relate to
other people. Some presences mean threats, while others can mean
support, comfort or safety. We use our experiences of past states as a
repertoire from which we select the state best suited to arising
situations, and presences known from the past are projected onto
presences encountered in the present.
I want to suggest that we are projecting a part of ourselves onto real
people whenever we're relating to them. The presences we experience in
other people are the creations of our own minds, externalized and
projected onto others. Each separate presence will call up a separate
state of consciousness, although the differences between many of these
states might be slight. From infancy onwards, we have acquaintances;
people who are too socially distant to be called friends, but close
enough that we must pay some attention to them. The default settings
for relating to acquaintances are derived from our own sense of self
while we are with such people in the past. Other people are absolutely
unique. Some people catch our attention very sharply. We fall in love
with them, or we come to hate their guts. These people are not mere
aquaintances. Their presence cuts closer to home. Their words, for
whatever reason, affects our self-esteem.
Because we are such an intensely social species, our self esteem is
largely a function of what we think our value is in the eyes of
others. Most of the time, people speak to each other in ways that
reflect their respect, or lack of it. Respect has a lot to do with
social standing and rank. For the most part, we respect ourselves when
we feel respected by those around us, even though it doesn't
necessarily have to be that way.
Our self-esteem changes almost constantly. Most of these changes are
experienced through our emotions, although it also has a serious
impact on the way a person thinks. Our moods can be elevated and
depressed through the words of others. Words like you're hired' and
you're fired.' Or, I love you' and leave me alone.' Our moods are
directly connected to our level of self-esteem in each moment. In
normal conditions, our experience of our selves is sensitive to how we
are treated and spoken to by others.
Each and every state of consciousness carries its own level of
self-esteem. Whether or not one is in a subordinate position in any
given situation initiates an appropriate state. The state enables a
set of responses that minimize the situation's stress level by
fulfilling the expectations of the dominant person in the situation.
Each state has its own ways of thinking, feeling, speaking, and
acting. Even for the most aware people, its hard to see all these
thing happening at once. We live on autopilot, so to speak. If we were
to try to make a conscious decision about each way we 'act out' our
state of consciousness, we'd crash the system. We have to be on
automatic, for the most part, because there are so many controls to
adjust for each state.
We want positive states to repeat, and to avoid the negative,
unpleasant ones. This creates a tendency to bond with people that feel
good to be around. Simple, eh?
Not really. We 'decide' who feels good according to what we choose to
project. And we make these choices largely out of habit. It begins in
infancy, when we first begin to experience ourselves as individuals.
There has been some research in pre natal psychology that suggests
that the fetus experiences its mother's states of consciousness as
though they are it's own. Sometime around birth, the newborn begins to
experience its own states for the first time. Before birth, the mother
gets angry, the fetus experiences the same state, although certainly
it will now have very different phenomenological correlates. After
birth, when the mother gets angry, the infant no longer experiences it
with the same intimacy. The boundaries of the infants new self must be
In the womb, the fetus probably didn't distinguish between itself and
its mother. She must now be experienced as an external presence. For
the first time, the ambient chemical environment in the womb is
experienced as its mother's smell. Its mother, now experienced as
separate from itself, becomes the source from which all its physical
and emotional needs are met, almost without exception.
Many commentators on the experience of romantic love have argued that
the experience of early childhood comfort and nurturing provides a
template from which later expectations about relationships are drawn.
We begin to feel that our lover ought to treat us much as our mothers
did. Women, of course, have the additional process of mapping their
senses of comforting, loving presences onto men.
In looking for romantic fulfillment, we are looking to find an
experience that will change our experience of ourselves. Not by
looking for love within ourselves, as so many spiritual teachers
suggest, but by allowing a part of our 'self' to manifest through
another. When I stop and remember that we're a social species, I
cannot help but see it differently.
For some people, or at some times in a person's life, 'true happiness'
might be found only outside one's self. Our brains and minds are
configured for relating to others in so many ways. Humans have a long
childhood compared to other primate species, and most of it is spent
relying on others to meet their most basic needs. Children are so
engaged with the presence of others that they can usually play with
anything and imagine it's alive.
Children imagine their toys have a presence to them, so that a crayon
becomes Mr. Crayon'. The Buddhist faithful imagine that a Buddha
statue has the presence of the Enlightened One. The disciple sees God
in his Guru. And these are projections. In the same way, lovers
project their own loving presence onto their romantic partners.
I want to suggest that falling in love is the process of projecting
one's right-sided sense of self onto one's beloved.
Because the same pathways that are involved in the maintenance of the
right-sided, silent sense of self are also specialized for negative
feelings, the maintenance of the romantic illusion is delicate at
best. It's easily broken, and rarely lasts for more than a few weeks
in most cases and a few years in cases where people feel strongly
enough to marry.
People often want to feel really passionate love before starting a
relationship. But that kind usually doesn't last. When it fades, very
few people escape disappointment of one kind or another. People are
angered when their lover turns out to be who they are instead of who
they were supposed to be. Sustaining relationships past this point
calls for either denial or relationship and communication skills.
I can use a fancy neuro scientific phrase to describe the nature of
love (a sustained interhemispheric intrusion), but even I don't enjoy
seeing my romantic side reduced to so sterile a set of words.
Like the sensed presence experience, being in love happens when the
silent sense of self comes out where linguistic sense of self can see
it, except that instead of being sensed as a feeling that one is being
watched, its projected directly onto the beloved. In the process, the
normal division of other and self is blurred. Lovers speak of losing
themselves in the other, or that they can't tell where they end and
their lover begins.
So long as one is able to sustain the illusion that one's partner will
be the source of fulfillment, the projection continues undisturbed.
It's been said that, when it comes to relationships, everybody is
looking for a tailor-made fit, even though its an off-the-rack world.
Inevitably, something happens to disturb the illusion. The
'interhemispheric intrusion' ends. The honeymoon is over. 'Hemispheric
intrusions' are often very brief events. A vision of an angel might
last just a few seconds. The first flush of true love' might continue
for only weeks or months.
There was a study of the relationship between hemisphericity and
self-esteem, and it found that the higher a person's level of right
hemispheric 'dominance', the lower their self-esteem. Right
hemisphericity means that a person's experience of their self is
dominated by their right side. This is the side of the brain that is
specialized for both negative feelings and non-verbal ways of
processing our experiences. All other conditions being equal, the more
intuitive and spontaneous a person is, the lower their self esteem
will be. Of course, people compensate in various ways, so that 'all
other conditions' usually aren't equal.
When a person is in love, their right hemispheric self' has access to
the positive emotions on the left. Love feels good. However, after the
experience is over, the person finds themselves more vulnerable to
fear and sadness in response to things that threaten their sense of
self. Such threats occur almost every moment in our lives. Those whose
sense of self is mostly derived from the left side are much less
vulnerable. They are better able to feel good about themselves even in
the face of verbal assaults, but they are also less likely to fall so
deeply in love in the first place.
The typical aftermath of a mystical experience finds the person
feeling somewhat shaky. They will avoid those whose energy' tends to
bring them down.' In other words, they won't be able to cope well in
many social interactions. They may even retreat into solitude, and
avoid relating to others as much as they can. They tend to reject the
mind-set that supports the opinions of those whose company they don't
enjoy. At the same time, there can be an almost obsessive desire to
share' their experience with anyone willing to listen. They seek out
validation in the eyes of those around them; 'shouting it from the
rooftops', making up for the fragmentation their sense of self
sustained in their epiphany. They may cling to those whose company
they find supportive. Left hemispheric personalities are judged and
labeled using such phrases as there are none so blind as those who
will not see.' Ideas about karma are invoked to explain how some just
aren't ready to hear the truth.'
Someone who is in unrequited love, or is losing a lover they still
want to be with, finds themselves in much the same position. They,
too, are vulnerable. They also feel that others just don't
understand.' Their self esteem falls. They may cling to those who are
willing to support them, just like those processing' in the wake of
spiritual experiences and awakenings. They may also feel that they are
not the same person they were before they experienced their romantic
disappointment, just as the religious experient is also a changed' man
In the Sufi tradition, God is referred to as the beloved, and it
preserves many metaphors that convey the idea that separation from God
is as painful as separation from whoever one is in love with. Union
with God is seen as similar to romantic fulfillment.
I suggest that romantic love is underpinned by the same brain
mechanisms that are involved in the experience of God. While a mystic
experience is often short and intense, romantic episodes may last a
long time. Both of them involve the silent, right-sided self coming
out where the left-sided self can see it, along with intense positive
The after-effects are based on similar neural and psychological
mechanisms. The dark night of the soul and the despair of unrequited
love are made of the same stuff'.
There is some truth in the sayings that the beloved is God, and that
when we love God we are loving ourselves. I and thou are one. The
other is the self.
Shakti - Magnetic Brain Stimulation
Deja Vu Darwinian Reincarnation
Consciousness Romantic Love and the Brain
Origins of spirituality in Human Evolution
Sacred Lands "The Sensed Presence"
Glasses For Enhanced Visual Acuity
God in the Brain Spiritual Aptitude Test
Stimulating My BrainAs A Spiritual Path
Inventing Shakti Sex_and States of Consciousness
The Gay Male Brain - Evolutionary Speculations
Visions The Spiritual Personality
Enlightenment And the Brain
Archetypes A Diet For Epileptics?
Odd Experiences - Online Poll Results
Brain_News Out-Of-Body Experiences
Near-Death Experiences - Thai Case histories
The Big Bang Meditations from Brain Science
Near-Death Experiences in Thailand - Discussion
Downloads The Terrorist Brain
Publications by Dr. M.A. Persinger
Credentials Hippocrates on Epilepsy
4. mailto:brainsci at jps.net
More information about the paleopsych