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Heart mapping

Building a love map can help foster familiarity, friendship and intimacy.

Words Kyra Xavia

Romantics everywhere can rejoice. If we ever needed a reason to be more caring, kind, and affectionate, this is it. Experiencing happiness and love not only makes our hearts throb, our senses heighten, and our spirit soar, science has discovered another intriguing benefit. 

For the first time, Finnish researchers have mapped the neural circuitry of emotions on the human figure to create a Body Atlas. It illustrates where we can expect different emotions to manifest most strongly and, as all touchy-feely, lovey-dovey souls already know, the results reveal that joy and love really do give us the warm fuzzies. 

While we usually associate these emotions with the heart, the study found love actually causes activity throughout the body, with happiness extending even further, all the way down to the feet. It certainly makes sense when we consider the physiological effects of the chemicals produced when enamoured and joyful – and this may also explain why elated, loved-up individuals have glowing skin, sparkling eyes, bountiful energy, a healthy libido, and more. Quite simply, love is a many-splendoured thing that lights us up inside and out, helping us to feel more alive. 

Although scientists have known for years that emotions cause bodily sensations, whether it’s a racing heart (excitement), butterflies in the stomach (nervous anticipation) or flushed cheeks (arousal/attraction), we’ve only recently discovered that humans have the same responses associated with emotions regardless of culture, language or location, indicating that the mind-body link is biological and integral to our survival. While this system operates automatically without us consciously thinking about it, understanding how we’re affected can pave the way for healing, wellness and living more mindfully. 

For instance, the facial feedback hypothesis suggests emotions can be influenced by our bearing and stance (lift the corners of your mouth and see for yourself). This explains how smile therapy can ease anxiety, laughter yoga relieves all manner of ailments, and power posing can instill confidence. (Strike a Wonder Woman pose for two minutes – feet shoulder- width apart, fists on hips, chest open, head up.)

A similar dynamic can occur when we voice what is true for us, act upon what we know to be just, or hear a heartfelt plea that strikes a chord. We might get tingles down the spine, raised hairs on our arms, or tears in our eyes. In contrast, repression and denial of feelings tend to appear physically as tightness, restriction and pain. 

In our search to learn more, other mind-body models have been developed too. Take the brain for example. It’s widely believed to contain a “map” of the body for sensing touch, and now, it also seems, we have an emotional body map that corresponds to a specific type of touch. 

In recent years, scientists have discovered a subset of nerves called C-tactile afferents. Their findings indicate we’ve evolved with these specialised nerves that respond with natural feel-good opioids to convey the pleasure of gentle contact. From brushing a hair off someone’s shoulder, to tenderly stoking the cheek of a sleeping child, each time we reach out and touch someone with gentleness, we are in effect improving their physical health and psychological wellbeing, as well as maintaining and strengthening social bonds. This is something every mother and child can attest to, and gives added meaning to the phrase “let me kiss it better.” 

Of course, the hug hormone oxytocin plays a crucial role in parental and social bonding between humans as well. This “love” peptide creates feelings of calm and closeness. It also joins brain areas involved in the processing of information, such as sights, smells, and sounds, to our reward system. 

And it’s not only loving touch and caring words that have a positive impact on our being. Other forms of communication are just as important – our facial expressions, posture, attention and presence can all convey how we feel. 

So how do we experience more of the good stuff and its body-tingling benefits?

Well, that’s easy. First of all, be more kind. Care happens to be one of our greatest currencies, and when we invest this way, the returns are priceless. Evidence reveals that the more someone receives and observes kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to a rewarding, upward spiral of generosity and love in relationships. Secondly, even though our modern day lives may be complex, finding happiness is simple. We all want to feel connected, seen and understood – and this is where our love language comes in to play. Each of us has preferred ways of showing appreciation, establishing union, and communicating our desires. This may be through turning towards others with bids for connection, acts of service, uninterrupted quality time, words of affirmation, physical touch and/or thoughtful gifts. These gestures not only help us engage with others, it’s also how we get our emotional needs met. 

An inside job 

It’s essential to realise that our capacity to truly love others only goes as far as our ability to accept and love ourselves – and this hinges upon knowing deep in our heart of hearts that we are enough just the way we are, completely and entirely worthy. For this reason, practise self-compassion with an attitude of warmth, humour and benevolence. It is after all, our faults, flaws, and foibles that make us lovable. As researcher and storyteller Brené Brown explains, “vulnerability is the birthplace of belonging, creativity, joy, and love.” She also talks about the importance of being a ‘marble jar’ friend, one of those rare and special people who consistently demonstrate their trustworthiness and dependability through minor but meaningful acts, every single day. 

Little and often

Gestures of love don’t have to be grand, in fact, it’s the small, regular acts that are paramount. Despite their apparent ordinariness, they are the glue that binds us. They are also an investment in our bank of goodwill that ultimately allows our relationships to prosper. Dr. John Gottman, who has spent 40 years studying couples, explains, “The secret to happily-ever-after is doing small things every day to show we care.” 

He also advises building a “Love Map”, which traces the geography of our partner’s heart and details the terrain of their inner world. It should include their dreams, goals, hopes and fears, as well as all the tiny things about their life that help foster familiarity and intimacy. When our deeds of gratitude are the type our partner most values, their desirable effects magnify because our loved ones feel understood. This is the ultimate in giving and is the way to a ‘happily-ever-after’ quality of love.

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