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The human brain is extremely complex and this complexity mirrors itself in the nature of human relationships, especially when it comes to love. Ultimately what drives all living organisms is biology and we human beings are no exception.
The need for procreation to keep our species going lies deep also in the human DNA, it is something we share with all living organisms. What we don't share is our human consciousness, the ability to be aware of ourselves.
This ability drives us to something beyond mere procreation and the continuation of our species, something far more complex. Take a moment to consider all the elements that leads to millions of variations of being human. We human beings are a manifestation of life force driven by biology, genetic programming and predispositions.
We are shaped, formed and programmed first by an internal environment, our mother's womb and then the external environment, family, community and culture to make its indelible impression.
Both the internal and external environment greatly influenced our brain structure, which in turn shaped our values, beliefs and behaviour. It determined our ability and capability, how and what we learn and therefore our future.
We have the ability to be aware, to observe ourselves, to examine, to question and change our own behavior, and change our brain structure by doing so. We are aware of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviour and can directly and deliberately influence these. There are many paradoxes in our needs, traits and behaviour.
We have the ability to be creative and destructive; our brain is designed to be altruistic, social as well as seeking self gratification. We have a need for connection and protection, to belong and be separate, to love and be loved.
We have the ability to fantasise. We can imagine ourselves into the future while being able to remember our past. We have needs, make assumptions, and have hopes, dreams, aspirations and expectations. We have ideas and desires how our relationship 'should' or 'ought' to be.
While there are core needs that most healthy functioning human beings share, not one of us sees the world the same way. Each of us sees the world through different lenses so we all experience the world differently.
Every brain is like a map of a country, each with its own unique geography, infrastructure, culture and language etc. Just like each individual finger print is unique so is every human brain, no one brain is the same. Is it any wonder that relating to other human beings can be so challenging?
The human brain is one of the most wondrous and complex organs on the planet capable of the most extraordinary endeavours, yet neuroscience tells us that when it comes to choosing a 'mate' we generally do this with the most primitive, least logical part of our brain.
We 'select' and fall in love with our partner based on a powerful combination of a genetic and biological blueprint, influencing our feelings and emotions. Yet, we are deluded into thinking that we make choices based on logical deliberation and reasoning.
However the logical, reasoning and the analytical part of the brain, the frontal cortex, does not get much of a look in while 'falling in love' is in progress. (You only have to look at the divorce statistics to confirm this.) As a matter of fact the thinking and reasoning part of the brain gets sent on a holiday by three powerful forces; biology, feelings and fantasy.
If logic comes back prematurely during the stage of falling in love, it often gets sent away again with thoughts such as: not now, we are having a good time, it feels so right, I know this is my soul mate, it is like we have know each other forever, yes, I know he/she is not perfect but it will change, we are in love and love conquers all, I know he's temperamental but he can be so nice etc.
There is a real truth in the saying, love is blind. Blind love is a diminished frontal cortex functioning. The lights are dimmed and the limbic system puts on rose coloured glasses. While the frontal cortex is kept in the dark during this initial attraction time, sooner or later it is bound to surface. By then the 'in love' voice might have changed its mind and so has the dialogue.
What the hell am I doing here? What did I see in this person? I thought he/she would change. I thought this would last forever. I don't feel the same anymore etc.
Nature does a great job despite our sophisticated brain functioning, it gets people together, yes, for better and for worse. It was not that long ago that many people got together for reasons other than romantic love such as economic and security reasons.
While falling in love is one of the most wonderful and powerful human experiences that has given birth to the most exquisite painting, music and literature, it is also one of the most precarious stages. Many people think that being in love is the default position of the relationship and when this stage evolves into the next that something has gone wrong.
Of course there are many situations where people don't get swept off their feet and fall in love, such as in arranged marriages, or where friendship evolves into a love relationship. Interestingly in these situations the chance of the frontal context functioning being hijacked is less likely and there appears to be a better chance of the relationship not only to survive but flourish.
Research also shows that couples who consciously prepare themselves for the relationship as well as the marriage, rather than just the wedding day, have a much better chance of it being a more successful and fulfilling relationship. It appears that 'growing in love' seems less exciting yet more sustainable.
More than ever before do relationships end up in divorce and children live with either one parent or the other. On one hand this brain dynamic of over powering the frontal cortex has served our species well in terms of procreation, on the other hand it has made human relationship more complex than any other species on this planet.
We humans don't seem to fare too well with this complexity and many are unable to move the relationship beyond the initial emotional functioning.
While we might choose our partner based on genetics, biology and the most primitive part of the brain, this does not mean that the limbic system has to keep hold of and control the relationship like it appears to do in so many relationships.
The integration of prefrontal cortex with limbic system is necessary for the emotional and well-being of the relationship.
Emotional intelligence plays a most important and major role in being able to 'dance with the flow of complexity' rather than trying to control it, or what most people try to do; try to change the other person.
It is important to have an understanding, insight and awareness of each other's map. It is also important to understand the stages of human relationships and the elements that sustain a successful relationship.
Especially when it involves the people we love people we owe it to yourself and them to foster this integration through engaging in higher brain functioning, especially in the ventromedial (middle) prefrontal cortex.
Part of this section, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), one synapse away from the limbic system, brain stem, and neocortex, serves as the brain's emotion regulation system and ''chief executive officer'' of the social/emotional brain. It functions at the interface of higher and lower brain regions, integrating neocortical and limbic functions.
The OFC calms down the amygdala and helps us make healthy and constructive choices in keeping with our goals and values; it allows us to respond based on information rather than react because of lack of impulse control.
When we develop self-awareness and awareness of others, and when we develop compassion and empathy, we activate and encourage the OFC.
While we cannot change our biological and genetic blue print or the environment we grew up in, we certainly do not have to be held hostage by these.
The extraordinary ability for the human brain to be able to reflect upon itself brings with it a responsibility to do so and to shift the brain into higher functioning, especially when it comes to the brain in relationship.
Tao de Haas is a registered Psychotherapist, Social Ecologist and Corporate trainer. He is the co-founder of Minds with Integrity, an i4 Practitioner and one of the co-authors of 'Leadership is Upside Down: The i4 Neuroleader Revolution".