In July of 2014 I had a baby, and it made me curious about how it is that love nourishes mental development. Think about it: Love. You can’t eat it. You can’t play with it. You can’t assign it as homework or test your class on it at the end of the semester, yet it is probably the most important catalyst to our children’s growth from birth through high-school. So I did a little research and came up with three ways in which love physiologically affects the brain.
First, love makes your hippocampus bigger. A study from Washington University School of Medicine shows that by nurturing a child during early development can make the hippocampus grow up to ten percent larger. The hippocampus is a relatively small, seahorse-shaped organ located in the temporal lobe. It’s classically associated with long-term memory, but it’s also the home of one of the most powerful educational tools: associative learning. Whenever you recall facts about dinosaurs because of the fossils you saw on a family vacation, or perhaps you’ll never forget certain lines from a Shakespeare play because of all the time you spent practicing with your friends, that’s associative learning. It mixes emotion or experience with memory. In this way the hippocampus adds depth to education, so it makes sense that the most effective way to strengthen it is through love.
Once our beloved children are so smart because of their enlarged hippocampuses, they are probably going to need some stress relief. For this we have oxytocin! Oxytocin, known as the “trust hormone,” spikes not only through contact with a romantic partner, but also with good friends and family members. Your hypothalamus releases a dose of oxytocin everytime you get a hug, or a handshake, or have an intimate conversation with eye contact. In fact you can increase your levels of oxytocin just by thinking about someone you care about. It’s also an extremely helpful hormone because it plays an important role in reducing stress and recovering from difficult situations. Recent studies show that oxytocin can alleviate depression, allow more restful sleep and even reduce alcohol consumption in adults. Of course it seems almost intuitive that these would be some of the useful side effects of loving relationships.
Finally, did you know you have a little brain inside your heart? The heart contains a dense network of 40,000 neurons that not only communicate biophysical information to the brain (such as your pulse) they can also store thoughts and memories. Furthermore, it has recently been discovered that the neurons in the heart influence the brain, especially when it is “coherent” or generating stable and calm wavelike rhythms. What is the best way to make the heart coherent? Scientists at an institution called HeartMath have shown that the heart stabilizes and becomes coherent when a person experiences positive feelings such as appreciation and love. Their research also reveals that coherence of the heart leads to clearer thinking, better decision making, and even longer life. Therefore it has been scientifically proven, whatever challenges our children experience during their education, love is in fact the answer.