Brain Science and Romantic love. Sensing ‘their’ presence.


© Todd Murphy


Love is an example of the self/other relationship, even though it’s really about ourselves. We experience romantic love as focused on another person, so to look into it, we need to think about “the other” as well as the sensation of love.

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There hasn’t been much 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.” It’s that feeling people get, usually at night, where they feel that there is someone or something in the room with them, an “energy” or perhaps a “presence” . 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 right side of the brain, has a self, too. 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 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 onward, 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 acquaintances. Their presence cuts closer to home. Their words, for whatever reason, affect 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 according to 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 ourselves is sensitive to how we are treated and spoken to by others.

Each 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 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, it’s hard to see all these things 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 mothers states of consciousness as though they are its own. Sometime around birth, the newborns begin to experience their own states for the first time. Before birth, the mother gets angry, the fetus experiences the same state, although it will certainly have very different phenomenological correlates (like behaviors, emotions and thoughts). 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 found.

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 draw our expectations about relationships. 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. 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 we can 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.

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  When someone 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 went through during 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” after 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 one who’s had a religious experience is also a “changed” man or woman.

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 the one you love. 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 feelings.

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.