The Heart Bone’s Connected to the Brain Bone: an exposé on Phenethylamine, Dopamine, and Oxytocin

Phenethylamine (fiːnaɪlˌɛθɪlˌəˈmiːn). You may not have heard of it, but you’ve drunk it. At least, your brain has. It goes by the nickname,“the infatuation drug.” It was secreted into your brain in Middle School when that one girl or guy walked into class, took a seat two rows down and to your left, and you didn’t hear another word the teacher said. You were in love. This person was perfect. Life with this person by your side would be the definition of bliss every day; that was clear. The only thing unclear was how to get from “two rows down and to the left” to “down the aisle and into your cool loft apartment with your two perfect kids.” Remember her or him? You may not remember their name, but now you know their nickname: “Phenethylamine.” Or more accurately—their real name.

Phenethylamine is an hallucinogen. And a nomadic one (not romantic… nomadic). It distorts reality, such that what you see is not real. Don’t get me wrong; that person in seventh grade was cute; real cute! But you’re now old enough to know they also had flaws. (Every person has flaws because our strengths are our weaknesses; a person with no weaknesses is a person with no strengths.) But you didn’t see those flaws; there wasn’t a weakness within fifty rows of that seventh grade chair. That is, until Phenethylamine moved on; and it always does. It has a shelf-life of a few weeks to a maximum of two years. If your dream-date’s facade is terribly misleading, your Phenethylamine “high” might last only as long as your first conversation.

But there’s good news. In fact, much better news. The promiscuity of Phenethylamine is trumped by the faithful permanence of the bond of Oxytocin. If Phenethylamine is the chemical reaction behind “puppy Love,” Oxytocin is the chemical reaction behind real love. It’s the feel-good chemical that washes over the brain when we connect with another human being in a way that feels secure, safe, comforting, loving, nurturing, and accepting. It says, “I want to be with this person” not because one has fallen in love with a hallucination, but because one has experienced authentic, safe, caring human connection. In that sense, it is a much more reliable guide to a good mate. After all, how we make one another feel will go a lot further in a relationship than pretty eyes and skin-tight jeans. Oxytocin also trumps—in the area of worthy criteria on which to build a relationship—another brain chemical that can lead us into trouble: Dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get what we want. It is a motivator. It is an adrenaline junkie that loves pursuit; it’s a fan of the hunt—whether the reward of the hunt is “to get the girl” (or guy), or win the tournament, or seal the business deal, or even find the next high (all addictions are ultimately Dopamine addictions; the pleasureful reward of getting what one craves rides in on a wave of Dopamine). But there could be volumes written on the woes of following Dopamine into a relationship. That’s why sex is a terrible way to start a relationship. A relationship motivated by and rewarded by a cerebral Dopamine bath is a shallow and uncertain relationship. In fact, speaking of books on Dopamine disasters, there is a chapter of that “book” as old as the Bible. This relational-Dopamine-letdown is behind the tragic story in chapter thirteen of 2nd Samuel, of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. He had long nurtured an obsession with “having her.” Once he “had her” (by force), “he despised her.” His Dopamine satisfied, he was not interested in a loving relationship; he was off to the next conquest. And for Tamar? What chemical washed over her brain? Certainly not Oxytocin; not even Dopamine—but Cortisol—released by the hypothalamus in response to threat, fear, and danger. Thus, the Dopamine-fueled dream of the sexual conquerer was the Cortisol-fueled living nightmare of the conquered.

But I said there was good news, didn’t I? Back to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is relationship superglue. It is the brain’s bonding chemical. It is that which creates bonding between mother and newborn, as the infant is placed on the mother’s bare belly and suckles for the first time. This becomes the child’s first experience outside the womb of caring, comfort, safety, acceptance, belonging and love… the first building block of a chemically-reinforced association of relationships with safe reliability. The more positive, pure, safe connections a person has throughout life—especially in early life—the more capacity one will have for secure attachments, or safe, trusting relationships. Oxytocin is released in moments ranging from plutonic to romantic. It shows up when we’ve been “tended or befriended.” It is secreted when a human interaction has felt good—safe, accepting, nurturing, and comforting. It’s in the cradled lullaby; the nonsexual touch of a friend; a good massage; a hug when we’re sobbing; holding someone’s hand when afraid; snuggling with a parent or spouse; the empathy we see in the tear-rimmed eyes of someone who has listened—really listened—to our story; it’s as public and low-level as holding candles in a Christmas Eve service, and as private and intense as front-to-front sexual orgasm in a relationship of committed love. And that committed love is, again, the difference between the secretion of shallow and short-lived Dopamine, or a Phenethylamine hallucination.

So, the heart bone is indeed connected to the brain bone, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways; ways that help, heal and protect us, and ways that hinder, wound, and damage us. And that’s the gift—and curse—of relationships. Our hearts are vulnerable; our brains are vulnerable; relationships are vulnerable. Love, trust, and commitment are vulnerable. But where would we be without that relational vulnerability? Alone. We’d be alone. And that is the most wounding existence of all. The alternative is to be for others a safe, accepting, respectful, comforting, loving, protective presence and—if we choose wisely—experiencing the same from someone else.

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Real Relationships

I have people-centric jobs, yet fight to spend time with people. I am a counselor, pastor, chaplain, and teacher chained to a computer much of the day. And it’s not optional. There are daily, weekly and monthly reports to be filed, emails to be read and sent, social media to update, websites to maintain, documents to produce, mandated electronic records to keep, resources to create, and even blogs—of all things—to write! There would be bulletins to produce and monthly newsletters, as well, but our church does not use them; I refuse to spend time on them, given their poor return on investment.

The investment that does pays off—in strengthened lives, empowered people, healed wounds, and functional families—is in real relationships with people. Yet, with many households being characterized by two working spouses, sports commitments nearly every night and weekend, smart phones that allow us to work all the time, and nearly everything requiring us to go online, except for gassing up the car… who can be away from a little screen long enough to talk with a flesh-and-blood person? Even people who go to coffee shops “to be around people” sit staring into little screens instead of engaging with the people around them. I even see kids at bus stops staring off into space with earbuds in their ears, intentionally walled off from each other by personal playlists. It’s like a disturbing sci-fi movie.

Jesus’ last prayer on earth surprised me. In John 17, he prayed for his disciples and all those who would follow them in faith. Given the myriad things Jesus could have prayed, what did he pray? He prayed, “…that they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (v.21) He prayed that people be united; that they be one as he and the father are one. In other words, he prayed for bonded human relationships. If that’s the case, then what are going to be top priorities of the liar/enemy/deceiver/destroyer? Isolate and divide. And hasn’t he done a marvelous job of it!?! Not only has he walled us off from one another as in the above examples and many more, our enemy has taken even the most intimate, connectional experience imaginable—that physical intimacy capable of producing a human life—and turned that into a disconnected “hookup,” or worse by way of even less connected online counterfeit experiences.

Brain scans have shown us a great deal, including the neurological and chemical responses that are created in response to varying human interactions, such as looking into the eyes of another human being, having a conversation, working as a team, receiving a smile, experiencing nonsexual touch, or engaging in caring sexuality. Brain scans reveal that God made us with a need for human relationships, and that these cannot be fulfilled by cyber connections. Thus, our adversary—in the name of convenience and productivity (measured in time, currency, inanimate objects, and other factors unrelated to human well-being)—has isolated us into boxes. We live in insulated boxes; drive in mobile boxes; sit in work cubicles, and constantly hold hands with an omnipresent mobile box. Exit human relationships; enter isolation, loneliness, and neurological lack of familiarity with attachment and real intimacy.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. We were made for relationships… real human relationships. It was what Jesus prayed for when he prayed his last prayer on earth.

Two Equal and Opposite Errors

Your spouse is not your enemy. And your spouse is not your god.

Those are two extremes couples often take toward each other. The first—regarding our spouse as our enemy—makes marriage a contest. One or both spouses feels that they have to defeat their spouse in order to get their way. Rather than a cooperative team, husband and wife have become opposing teams. Marriage is a sparring contest; words are offensive weapons spoken in harsh, sarcastic, unkind, or even threatening tones. Kindness is reserved for others.

The opposite extreme is couples who marry as if another person will bring meaning and fulfillment and purpose to their lives, overcoming their deficits; eliminating loneliness and sadness forever. That is to regard one’s spouse as one’s god. Of course, we know that our spouse is not actual deity. But, the expectations are beyond mortal fulfillment. A human can’t make us whole, give life purpose, or be our constant companion. These are the things of God! Anyone who expects a person—even a spouse—to fulfill them is riding a wave of idealistic distortion that will eventually crash.

Our spouse is not our enemy, and our spouse is not our god. Our spouse is an imperfect companion through life. Marriage is the commitment of two imperfect people to unconditionally love each other despite it all, till death do them part. We are friends; best friends who have good time and bad, and find our way back to good after things have gone bad. We come together and spend years trying to understand each other, so that we can support one another and take care of each other, whether rich or poor, sick or healthy, as long as we both shall live. Marriage isn’t about getting our way (singular); it’s about forming our way (plural); it’s about forming a “we” out of two “me’s.”

Marriage is not a contest. And marriage is not salvation through a mortal being. Marriage is a team of two on a journey toward unconditional love for each other, empowered by the unconditional love of God.

Best Gift: Extending Unconditional Love

 

Togetherness. It happens at Christmas. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Yes, it is. Togetherness means drawing close; but sometimes that feels like a collision. The trick is managing our togetherness with other-centeredness toward each others’ speed and direction.
If you’ve ever heard me speak or teach on relationships, you know that “other-centeredness” is how I define love. As an expert on the worlds of your loved ones, you know some of things that makes them feel good; you have knowledge of what they enjoy; you have experience in how words affect them; how decisions feel respectful and empowering or disregarding and defeating. You know some things they like and some things they hate. And you know what contributes to their sense of well-being and protection. In other words, you know how to love the people in your life in other-centered ways.
This Christmas, give the gift of other centeredness. Extend unconditional love without regard for reciprocation. Go first in offering respect, honor, kindness, gentleness, patience, and protection. Resist the temptation to even look for anything in return. Let the joy be in the giving, not in receiving. Love from the overflow of God’s love, who drew close to you in Christ despite it all, offering grace, forgiveness, and mercy that is new every morning.

All Relationships Come Down to This

There are people you count as friends. There are people whom you most decidedly do not count as friends. What’s the difference? Around your friends you feel good; accepted; nurtured, protected, maybe even loved. You trust your friends; you presume they’re there for you, as you’re there for them; that they’ve “got your back,” as you have theirs. “Enemies” by definition are not for you, but against you. They don’t have your back, they’re stabbing you in the back. And for those of us not in third grade, anymore, we probably don’t count anyone as an enemy, but there are people we don’t number as “friends,” either. We just don’t feel special around them; there’s not a connection or bond we’re going to seek out when we need nurture. There are others—friends—that we trust to meet those needs, or at least to wallow with us in our neediness.

That’s it. A friend doesn’t even have to be successful at meeting our needs; they just have to really, really want to, and feel really badly when they’re not able to. That feels great! We feel cared for; connected; nurtured; not alone. There are people in our corner. Friends.

Marriage is more about friendship than about romance. In essence, we get married because we feel good around this person. They make us feel better than does anyone on the planet. In fact, they make us feel so good that we want to make that feeling permanent. Sure, there’s romance, but romance without friendship is just sensual. It’s emotional and maybe physical, but as enjoyable as those are, they won’t sustain a marriage. Marriage is sustained at the level of attachment needs. And attachment needs have more in common with friendship than with passion.

What are attachment needs? They are identified in Attachment Theory as “the bottom line” of human relationships; even of human formation. Ideally, our attachment needs are met by our parents or primary caregivers. They include acceptance, safety, belonging, nurture, comfort, love, and respect. That is, we don’t have to “be more like our brother” in order to be loved by mom; we are accepted for who we are and who we aren’t. We have a  secure sense of belonging the family; we’re not threatened with abandonment, or cut lose to fend for ourselves. Our primary protectors actually keep us safe; they don’t endanger us. We find nurture and encouragement to become who we’re wired to be. When we’re hurt, or sad we find comfort in these human relationships. It is in such emotionally and physically safe relationships that we discover love and respect as a human being. From this base of human attachment, we have a place from which to launch and replicate other healthy relationships.

That’s where relationships live. All relationships—parents and children, spouses, friendships, neighbors, co-workers. All relationships come down to this… feeling good. Do we make them feel good? Do they make us feel good? “Feeling good” comes down to feeling attached to someone who is safe to be attached to; someone who is there for us, not against us; someone who accepts us, nurtures us, comforts us, loves us; someone who will be there in our time of need. A friend.

Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has observed couples in relationship for forty years and concluded that if there is one thing that holds together a marriage more than anything else, it’s friendship. That’s not very sexy; it’s not filled with “romantical” images. But a lover who isn’t a friend is a dangerous playmate.  If we’re going to superglue ourselves to someone for life, better that someone be friendly than merely sexy. Attachment will soon become more important than attraction. In fact, attraction will grow stronger with attachment, as what could be more attractive than someone who is safe, nurturing, accepting, and comforting? Relationships come down to that.