Love, Sex and the Brain – Part 3

Why Love Hurts

The changing brain

Even before we are born, the growth rate of our brain is impressive. The first sense to develop while in utero is the sense of touch. The lips and cheeks can experience touch at about eight weeks and the rest of the body around 12 weeks. The capacity for such emotions as joy, happiness, fear and shyness are already developed at birth. The specific type of nurturing a child receives will largely shape the development of these emotions.

During early pregnancy, neurons develop at the rate of 250,000 per minute! Although hard to believe, at birth your brain has almost the same amount of brain cells as the adult brain. One difference lies in the volume – the infant’s brain is only about 25% of the volume of the adult brain. This has to do with the fact that the synapses (those connections between neurons) grow from 50 trillion when we are infants to 500 trillion as adults. Like a new-born baby, your brain grew about three times its size in your first year. By the age of 6, your brain was about 90% of its adult size but remains a work in progress right through your lifetime, even in old age. New neurons can form right through our lives, for example in the olfactory bulb (used for smell) and the hippocampus.

Some of the changes in our brain occur through natural growth and maturity of the brain. Scientists used to proclaim that the human brain is fully developed by the age of around 18. Recent research, though, has found that the human brain is not fully developed before the age of 25 – possibly even beyond.


But what is the connection between brain changes and relationships? Amazingly enough, relationships are major change agents of the brain, and, like other experiences, relationships are constantly creating new circuitry that may override past experiences. As we mentioned before, the brain is not fully developed at birth, and it is through experiences that the baby forms new neural pathways. A large number of these pathways are formed through the relationships that form part of the baby’s world. The baby’s primary caregiver plays the most important role in this development. The quality of communication between the child and caregiver has a profound impact on the child’s future relationships. This first important relationship is referred to as the attachment bond. The quality of this bond (how secure or insecure, the type of emotional cues, for example) forms the major basis for attachment in the future. As the first caregiver communicates through words, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, touch, movement, the brain is altered, and these imprints set up a pattern for relationship behaviour in the future.

Babies and toddlers reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, gestures and words, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalising and gesturing back at them, which is termed “serve and return”. This two-way behaviour continues back and forth to strengthen positive relationships. If the responses that babies receive from parents and caregivers are unreliable, inappropriate, or absent, the development of the brain may be disrupted, which may lead to impaired learning, behaviour and even health in later years.

Some research suggests that maternal depression may have a permanent effect on a child’s ability to feel safe and in control and may even affect the ability of the child to retain memories and learn. Early childhood is, therefore, a critical period for shaping the sexual beings we will become in the future.

The Teen-Brain

The discovery of the changing brain has revealed quite a bit about teenager behaviour. It is the reactive parts of the brain that develop first and the responsible parts, or executive centres, that develop last. Because of this, the young adult may not always be aware of the consequences of choices and behaviours. They are generally more uninhibited and spontaneous. The young adult and adolescent may seem physically mature, can reason rationally and appear intellectually grounded, but there remains a developmental gap that could have a significant impact on their decisions and behaviour. The link between our seat of judgment and the problem-solving and emotional centre of the brain is still developing at this age and is the last connection to be fully functional. This explains some risky behaviour, the inability to process emotions in a mature way, and openness to exciting, intense stimulation. Parents who are dead against their offspring tying the knot in their teens and early adulthood may have a point! Making one of the most important decisions of your life with a brain that is not fully functional when it comes to evaluating, prioritising and responsible behaviour may just be a recipe for disaster!

Don’t criticise teenage behaviour too much, though, because, in the passion of new love, we as adults often regress to this irresponsible, intense, and uninhibited behaviour with total disregard for the consequences!

Life changes

So, what is there to learn from brain studies regarding relationships? Relationships that rewire the brain from our first moments on earth continue as we develop into adulthood. The type of relationships in your family “flip switches” in your brain: healthy, good communication, healthy boundaries, tolerance of differences and so on. Or, of course, the opposite can be true. Mothers and caregivers who make us feel safe and loved as children are laying the foundation for positive relationships as adults. Our body and brain remember how it felt to be cuddled, caressed and to be one with our mothers. This is what we long for in adulthood. No wonder a favourite term of endearment between lovers is baby!

Often feelings of insecurity and a fear of rejection have their roots in our earlier relationships. But we are not solely products (or even victims) of our past relationships. Your brain is a remarkably adaptive organ and is continuously rewiring itself as you develop. We asked the question earlier, “Why does love hurt?” The feeling of hurt and rejection is often felt all over – it is a pain difficult to pinpoint. That is because the pain of rejection is registered in the brain in the same areas as physical pain. So, the expression “a broken heart” is not so farfetched! Yes, love can be painful, and yes hearts can be broken. But, unlike broken bones, a broken heart can miraculously be healed by the return and the loving touch of the loved one! New and positive relationships can heal and as we learn from our mistakes of the past, our brain changes.

From the book “Love, Sex and the Brain” by Dr Kobus Neethling and Dr Raché Rutherford


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