We’ve known for some time that romantic love activates the same reward areas in the brain as cocaine. And it’s equally addictive for many of us.
Recently, Yale School of Medicine researchers have discovered a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine desire for the happiness of others without any expectation of reward — actually turns off the same areas in the brain that light up when lovers see each other. This phenomenon has now been documented in the minds of experienced meditators.
“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” reported Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale now at the University of Massachusetts.
Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, share their discoveries in a paper to be published Feb. 12 in the journal Brain and Behavior.
The neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators. The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.” These sayings are most commonly encountered in a particular type of meditation known as loving-kindness meditation.
Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs, Brewer notes. The tranquility of this selfless love for others — exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Theresa or the Dalai Llama — is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.
“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love — just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer said. “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist