The photograph came from another era, the story it told long forgotten. There they were, honeymoon lovers, high on a promontory over a bright blue ocean, looking out on a shining future. Kathy and Ken were young, slender, and vibrant. Their hair tossed in the breeze, their arms were around each other in a full embrace, and they gazed into each other's eyes.
Behind the scenes, the remarkable power of the brain was in play. Mirror neurons-minuscule brain cells that, at an internal level, connect two people who are in a meaningful relationship-linked Kathy and Ken in the most thrilling, spiritual, and sensual experience. Feelings of love, lust, and loyalty flooded them. On that promontory, with matching mirror neurons, each member of the couple reflected inner needs, desires, intentions, and goals to the other. In doing so, their mirror neurons triggered the release of brain chemicals to ensure those ecstatic feelings. Almost instantly a cascade of love-inducing brain chemicals and good-mood neurotransmitters bathed Kathy and Ken. Madly in love, they reflected to each other the promise of a fulfilling and lasting love.
Twenty-five years after that picture was taken, Kathy and Ken sat before me. Gray roots were visible under Kathy's carefully upswept hair, and Ken's once-wavy locks were thinning dramatically. Both of their frames seemed heavier. Ken grimaced in pain as he crossed his legs, and I could see the start of arthritis swelling in the knuckles on Kathy's hands. All these were simply signs of aging-natural, normal, inevitable.
But simple aging had not brought this couple to my office; rather, it was the loss of the passion that the honeymoon photograph showed so clearly and vividly. Kathy and Ken were simply no longer madly in love. Mirror neurons that once activated the brain systems that stored happy memories and hopeful wishes now activated those that stored old wounds, painful interactions, and feelings of despair.
"When did the love fade?" Kathy wondered aloud.
"Ten years ago? Twenty? Last week?" Ken couldn't remember, either; he knew only that they had traveled a long way from the boundless ardor of their honeymoon photograph- a vibrant, bright fire had turned to fading embers.
Love-inducing chemicals and good-mood neurotransmitters ceased to flow in the relationship; the vitality of love sputtered.
As Kathy and Ken talked, their feelings emerged. Although they still cared for each other in some way, their relationship had badly frayed. Kathy was hurt; Ken was uncomprehending. Kathy felt damaged; Ken felt rejected. Anger, resentment, and despair flew through the air. She said he was controlling and imperious; he charged that she was indifferent and frigid, that she wasn't really trying to mend the marriage. They talked past each other, out of sync, and their frustration and sense of injury drove their words.
They were two people clearly bonded, attached by history, circumstance, even by a shared desire for change. They wanted to bring love back, but, unable to let go of past hurts, they simply didn't know how or where to begin and didn't know if they could even do so.
I'm here to tell you it can be done. Before I do that, though, let me tell you a little about me. Over the years, as a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst, I have immersed myself in the study of the anatomy of the brain and how it functions in relationships. An understanding of unconscious processes, both within ourselves and in our relationships, and an exploration of neuroscience have enriched my understanding not only of why people repeat problematic interactions but also of how to help them create deep, lasting change on a neural basis. For twelve of my twenty years of private practice, I have helped couples in therapy create change in their relationships by applying the principles of neuroscience. For example, knowing that the brain is plastic and can reshape itself has given hope to many couples and has helped them positively alter the conditions that are conducive to relationship repair.
Falling in love and being loved in return is the peak experience of human existence. It's what everyone wants-to become the object of a beloved's longing. That is why, when love falters and hurtful relationships erode our selfhood, it feels so much as if we are taking a painful and debilitating downward plunge. Until recently, we've assumed that mysterious forces or chance drove these tides of human emotion and that romantic relationships would remain enigmas-to be fathomed by poets, if at all.
Science tells another story, however. Exciting discoveries point to the incredible power that mirror neurons-the tiny brain cells that connect two partners' internal worlds and simultaneously connect to their own multifunctioning brain systems-have on our love lives. Specifically, these brain systems that neuroscientists have analyzed indicate that mirror neurons, these infinitesimal brain cells, are wired to our functions of memory, feelings, empathy, memory, nonverbal communication, intentions, sensation, and perception. When these mirror neurons "fire," or are activated, they trigger connections and associations that flash across neural pathways. When applied to relationships, this process quite literally explains how and why two people, like Kathy and Ken, or your partner and yourself, fall in love with each other, fall out of love, and can bring love back.
The brain, in short, is the real heart of love, and the mirror neurons its beating pulse. Does knowing this reduce love to a mechanical series of engineering functions? Not at all. On the contrary, research on mirror neurons illuminates the concept that we are inherently programmed from birth to bond, to attach, to empathize, and to tune into one another at an emotional level (often called attunement). By tuning into one another, we can actually empathize with feelings that are dissimilar to our own, so that we can take someone else's perspective. And doing so is what real acceptance and intimacy are about. Studies have revealed that our brains drive us to connect-in other words, that we are wired for love. After all, love coupled with lust is the basis of our survival as a species.
Implicit in that research is the inspirational message of this book: when love fades, we can quite literally use our brains to bring it back. By learning how to rewire your mirror neurons, you will reactivate the associations and brain chemicals that first triggered communication, empathy, attunement, and erotic experience with your partner-the initial springboards to love in your relationship. You also will feel hopeful; you will dislodge painful relationship interactions from the brain and make room for fresh interactions of love.
In an intimate relationship, mirror neurons help link partners in a fluid psychological and neural system. And it takes only one person to make a change in the system. Does that mean that one person can single-handedly change the entire dynamic of a relationship? Not exactly. It does mean, however, that when we become empowered and create change in ourselves, our partners-whose impulses are linked to our own by their matching mirror neurons-are more likely to change as well.