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Love is the drug

MedicineMusic

My daughter, usually a "hakuna matata" sort of person, was stressed out. It was the beginning of her December vacation from school, but already Hadley was worried about the end of it. She would be flying into Newark from her dad's home in Texas and was daunted by the idea of lugging a hulking duffel and backpack through the airport to the New Jersey transit area, finding places for the luggage on the train, hauling everything onto a connecting train and then somehow struggling uphill from the depot to her college dorm.

"I'll come pick you up in Newark," I said. And so in January, I did just that, driving three hours from Baltimore to the airport, then 45 minutes to the school, not including the obligatory stop at the local Wegmans. When we got to her dorm, there was no parking to be seen, so I gave Hadley a big hug and began the drive home, happy.

It may seem extreme and indulgent to spend seven hours in the car simply to shuttle an almost 20-year-old 40-odd miles.

But I love my child, and thankfully, I can take refuge in science. I blame my helicoptering behavior on my "mommy brain."

The human race has spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying — through silly songs, great literature and sappy 30-second TV commercials — to analyze this crazy little thing called love. But one of the most interesting explanations I've encountered comes from neuropsychiastrist Louann Brizendine, author of the 2006 best-seller "The Female Brain." Filled with real-life examples from her practice and data from scientific studies, her book is a page-turner, establishing connections between physical changes in the brain and what we might describe as the power of love.

I'm not a scientist, so I can't verify the accuracy of her claims. But, based on my own experiences, her ideas seem to make sense. Take, for example, what Brizendine calls the mommy brain. During pregnancy the brain shrinks, but right before birth, it grows again, building "large networks of maternal circuits." This new wiring is fueled by the release of a hormone called oxytocin, a powerful chemical that floods mothers' brains. It's a drug so feel-good that in experiments, rats have preferred oxytocin to cocaine. And once the connection is established, whenever a mother gets physically close to the child (or even sees photos of said child), the oxytocin rush returns.

This whole addicted-to-love process goes on for decades. "For as long as her child is living under her roof," Brizendine writes, "[the mother's] GPS system of brain circuits will be dedicated to tracking that beloved child."

Eventually, there is an end to this when the nest is finally empty, which must come as a relief for both parties. But with one child launched and the other almost there, I find extra pleasure in my last blasts of mommy brain bliss.

And luckily, I have another source for my oxytocin/love addiction. Brizendine also writes about romantic love, describing the early stages, for women and men, as similar to Ecstasy — the chemistry of the brain mixes up a neurochemical cocktail that turns down the critical thinking system and turns up the good feelings.

Over time the cocktail mix calms down — but then couples establish attachment and bonding networks in their brain that continue to trigger oxytocin. So when I got back from that drive to New Jersey, for example, and my husband was waiting with a glass of wine and a hug that stretched out my tired back, the stress I'd begun to feel vanished.

Does knowing Brizendine's brain-centered scientific principles of love take the fun out of it? I don't think so. I'm certainly not suggesting we start writing songs like "You are the Oxytocin of My Life." But I find it helpful to know we can take actions to help direct our feelings.

Attachment networks, you see, grow when couples spend time together, she says. So if you rub your husband's shoulders, you'll fuel the attachment wiring in his brain. If you take your wife to dinner, you are treating her to a dose of oxytocin.

The small and grand gestures that show our loved ones that we care presumably also spread oxytocin around with wild abandon.

So why not fuel those feelings? This is your brain on love.

Catherine Mallette is a senior content editor in The Sun's features department and the editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. Contact her at cmallette@baltsun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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