The Neuroscience of Love and Attachment
By Carista Luminare, Ph.D.
Love is a universal experience that has captivated the hearts and minds of humans for centuries. It is a complex emotion that defies simple definition, encompassing a multitude of feelings and actions to seek connection to oneself and others. From its selfless nature to its transformative power, love can shape our lives and relationships in remarkable ways.
Human beings are inherently social creatures, driven by a fundamental need for connection and belonging. From the moment we are born, we form physical and emotional bonds with our primary caregivers, laying the foundation for our personality development.
Attachment refers to the emotional bond we develop with our parents or caregivers during our childhood. Responsive and nurturing caregiving fosters secure attachment by promoting positive interactions, emotional attunement, and consistent availability.
In contrast, neglectful or abusive caregiving can lead to insecure attachment styles, characterized by difficulties in forming trustworthy relationships and regulating emotions. If we have challenging or neglectful experiences during childhood, it can affect our attachment patterns and make it harder for us to form secure connections with others later in life, especially in our romantic relationships.
But the good news is that our brains are adaptable, and with the right support and experiences, we can develop healthier attachment styles.
The neuroscience of attachment seeks to unravel the intricate workings of these emotional bonds and shed light on the brain mechanisms underlying our fundamental need for connection. Recent advances in neuroscience have provided valuable insights into the neural basis of attachment and its profound impact on our lives.
Four key brain regions involved in the formation and maintenance of attachment bonds include the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis:
- The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for things like understanding social cues and managing our emotions. It is sometimes called the “Higher Brain” because it includes pro-relational functions like empathy, appreciation, patience, creativity, and reciprocity.
The prefrontal cortex is operating when you’re feeling open and not triggered by anyone’s behavior. It helps us figure out what others might be thinking or feeling while also in touch with our own thoughts and feelings.
This social skill is essential for building strong relationships where there is mutual understanding and sensitivity.
- The amygdala is another brain region involved in attachment. It is often called “The Lower Brain” in that its functions are more primitive. This area helps us process emotions, especially fear.
The amygdala functions partially as a threat detector, and it can quickly cause reactions when we feel threatened by someone’s behavior. Some of the non-relational behaviors in the insecure anxious attachment style are a tendency to attack, control and defend to protect oneself. For the insecure avoidant attachment style, the tendency is to withdraw, shut down and give up.
Studies have shown that individuals with a secure attachment style exhibit lower amygdala reactivity to threatening stimuli. When we feel safe and secure with our caregivers, the amygdala helps encode positive emotional memories associated with them. This is why being around our loved ones can make us feel happy and protected.
- The hippocampus is another brain region involved in attachment. It helps us form and store memories, including memories of the times we’ve spent with our attachment figures. These memories provide a foundation for future relationships, influencing how we connect with others as we grow up.
Individuals with secure attachment tend to have a more accurate and coherent autobiographical memory, facilitating adaptive social behaviors and emotional regulation.
- The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a complex system in our brain and body that plays a significant role in attachment. It helps us respond to stress and regulate our emotions.
If our dominant experience in childhood was insecure attachment (or we continue to experience stressful situations throughout life), the HPA axis can become over activated, leading to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Heightened cortisol levels when we feel overwhelmed in our primary relationships can create distress and activate insecure attachment behaviors.
Several other neurotransmitters are important in attachment. One of them is oxytocin, often called the “love hormone.” It is involved in bonding by helping us recognize familiar faces and building trust.
Another neurotransmitter, dopamine, is associated with pleasure and motivation. It reinforces our attachment behaviors by making us feel good when we’re with our loved ones.
Understanding the neuroscience of attachment can help us appreciate why our relationships are so significant. When we have loving and supportive attachment figures (at any age), our brains develop a strong sense of security and trust. This lays the groundwork for positive mental health and successful relationships.
Fortunately, we can learn to rewire our sense of security even if we have experienced insecure attachment with others. This occurs through repeated experiences in positive relationships. Also, therapeutic interventions such as attachment-based therapy are available online or in person.
By understanding the neuroscience of attachment, you can appreciate the incredible power of human connection and nurture the relationships that matter most to you.
Carista Luminare, Ph.D., is an Attachment Specialist (and “recovered codependent”), counseling individuals and couples for 45 years. Learn how Carista and her partner rewired each other and many clients from insecure attachment to secure love – featured in her 4-week online course called “Confused about Love? Get Clear. Be Wise. Feel Secure” at: www.ConfusedAboutLove.com/register