A New York Times piece looks at the brain science of unpredictable love — sorry your brain likes drama. “I Heart Unpredictable Love” by Richard A. Friedman discusses the fickle beast that is our heart. It lights up when we get random kibbles.
Constant kibbles? Ho-hum. Unpredictable kibbles? Sha-zam!
When the reward circuit fires, it also tells the brain something like, “Pay attention and remember this experience because it’s important.” This circuit releases dopamine when stimulated, which, if it reaches a critical level, conveys a sense of pleasure.
The reason this happens is simple. The brain’s reward circuit has evolved over millions of years to enable us to recognize and extract various rewards from our environment that are critical to our survival, like food and a suitable sexual mate. Unlike predictable stimuli, unanticipated stimuli can tell us things about the world that we don’t yet know. And because they serve as a signal that a big reward might be close by, it is advantageous that novel stimuli command our attention.
Which brings us to inconstant love. It turns out that human love and attachment are, like the fruit juice in Professor Berns’s experiment, natural reinforcers that can activate your reward pathway. The anthropologist Helen Fisher studied a group of 17 people in the grip of intense romantic love and found that an image of their beloved strongly activated the reward circuit.
If you are involved with someone who is unpredictably loving, you might not like it very much — but your reward circuit is sure going to notice the capricious behavior and give you information that might conflict with what you believe consciously is in your best interest.
Indeed, you may not even be aware of your own reward circuit’s activity. One of the curious things that Professor Berns found was that most of his subjects couldn’t tell the difference between the predictable or unpredictable condition in which the reward was given.
Since unpredictable rewards cause more dopamine release than predictable ones and more dopamine means more pleasure, one implication of this study is that people experience more pleasure with unpredictable rewards than with predictable ones — but they may not be consciously aware of this fact.
If someone seldom tells you they love you, and then suddenly they do? Well it’s HUGE, compared to say, your mom who tells you that every day.
The pick me dance is a powerful drug.
If unpredictable love is more valued by our brains, it stands to reason that the pick me dance is hard to quit. Let’s say you’re in love with some emotionally unavailable douchebag. When you do finally get a hit of sparkliness and wonder, it feels more special than…. well, healthy love without the dysfunction.
Perhaps there is some science behind why we reconcile with cheaters then. Ooh! Heart kibbles! I got one! They LOVE me! Swoon.
Funny, I’ve heard the same thing about abuse. What makes it extra horrible is unpredictability — the whole walking on eggshells thing. You don’t know where the trip wire is, and so when it goes off, it’s that much more awful because you cannot discern how to avoid it or control it.
Takeaway on the brain science of unpredictable love: If the highs are high and the lows are low — it’s probably not healthy. Slow and steady wins the race.