Grace and Adam aren't unique. I've spent years patting myself on the back after helping couples experience heartfelt changes during therapy sessions, only to watch them show up the next week as miserable as ever.

Why do people so easily forget the lessons they pick up? Recent neuroscience studies suggest that new insights often don't last because they aren't integrated into the brain states that become active when the insights are most necessary. Finding a new way of thinking when we are calm doesn't necessarily transfer to moments when we're upset. When we feel threatened, our brains automatically kick in to modes designed for self-protection—not relationship bliss. During studies dating back to the 1950s involving electrical stimulation of the brain, researchers were able to see the moods, desires, and concerns of patients change dramatically. For example, upon stimulation of a specific region of the brain, a patient in a study conducted by Robert Heath at Tulane University threatened to kill the physician nearest him at the time. In a similar experiment, the patient couldn't explain why he was so sure he'd been wronged only a few moments earlier. He knew the electrical stimulation had made him feel angry, but when the self-protective mode in his brain was electrically activated, he trusted his perceptions more than logic.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux at the Center for Neural Science at New York University has identified the neural mechanisms that help explain how this happens. Relying mostly on findings from studies on animals, LeDoux discovered that emotion has a privileged position of influence in the brain. His studies suggest that our brains are set up so that self-protective emotions can hijack the conscious mind for periods of time, driving us to act in ways that we may later regret. Although Grace left the previous therapy session armed with new knowledge about how to bring out the best in Adam, when he balked at going to lunch with her, Grace was seized by an impulse to criticize him. She couldn't apply the new way of thinking she'd learned the previous week because she was in an operating mode that was programmed for self-protection—not mutual understanding. When she questioned Adam's priorities, his walls went up immediately.

Fortunately, our brains are not only equipped for self-protection; we're also wired for love. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues at Bowling Green State University have found neural pathways for four specialized social brain states that produce feelings that draw us closer to those we love: One state produces a feeling of vulnerability and a longing for emotional contact, a second produces feelings of tenderness and urges to care for others, a third produces the urge for spontaneous and playful social contact, and a fourth activates sexual desire. While it's possible to engage in caring actions without the activation of these mood states, such actions often feel fake, lacking the heartfelt quality that gives them meaning. Caring acts are simply that: acts.


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