How We Grow In Love

Advances in the field of science may change our concept of love. In particular, a recent discovery about how our brains develop will change our view of how we function and behave, including how we get attracted and, eventually, love another person. The discovery: our brains do not stop developing at adolescence, but actually continue to rewire itself through our early adulthood (20-35 years old). At a very limited rate, it even continues to do so throughout our lifetime.

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What does this indicate about how we love? Simply put, how much our brain has developed indicates our capacity to love. But first we need to look at the most formative years for us (that is, to say, of our brains) – infancy and adolescence. In infancy, or the first year of our life, our mother gives us our first experience of love. Using neuroimaging to study the brains of babies cared by their mothers, we now know how we develop an attachment imprint, or the pattern that will guide how we process and display affection and choose our partners later in life.

Throughout childhood, the brain continues to develop at a fairly steady pace, but fires up once again as we start our puberty. Not incidentally, this is also the time when our body changes into an adult form. So what really happens is that, at puberty, we are changing inside and out: we become a new person. And with that we also experience our first instance of romantic love.

Here in Singapore, we’re not very permissive of public display of affection, especially among the young. But whether we like it or not, it is during our youth that we feel love’s clutch the strongest. Even the world’s most popular love story – Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – was between a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. Whatever rules we may impose on our young people, they will fall in love – as you probably also have been at their age – and our best recourse is not to tell them to stop but rather only to guide them against making any wrong and lasting decisions.

Because indeed love can be painful. And if all the pop songs about heartbreaks and spurned love is not enough to convince you, we also even have scientific research to back up that claim. In a study at the University of California Los Angeles, neuroscientists found that the same areas of the brain that register physical pain are active in people who have just been rejected by the person they desire. That’s why breakups hurt so much: the pain is in the head but it goes throughout the body.

So now we know what shapes our romantic life, how it starts, and why we should be careful about it. We’d like to end by showing you how our love can make us better or how better we can love our partners. First, when we are loved – starting from our mother to our spouse and our children – we feel good about it and, naturally, our brains make it so that we repeat behaviors that makes the other persons love us more. Through that we learn and practice kindness, compassion, honesty and many other virtues.

Second, now that we know our brain continues to rewire itself to suit our conditions, we also know that it’s possible to have a great love where once there was only a little. Put in another way, we can learn to be deeply in love with a person even if we didn’t hold the same type of affection previously. Of course, this isn’t a reason to marry someone you don’t love – and thankfully arranged marriages is quickly disappearing in Singapore – what it does mean is that there’s a perfectly good reason that the love we have for our partner today can be stronger in the future.

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