Shedding light on love, hate and fear in the brain

As a brain geek, I would like to share some neuroscience on love, hate and fear: Just as darkness is the absence of light, hate is the absence of love — this is actually how it plays out in the brain. Further, the brain shows that love does conquer fear. Let me explain.

The neural circuits for loving-kindness and compassion are in the left prefrontal cortex. When these circuits are activated, it stimulates the vagus nerve to turn on the relaxation response, and it causes the pituitary to release oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, which also makes the body relax, boosts immune and cardiovascular health, reduces blood pressure, and enables people to build a sense of trust and connection. Hate is the absence of love in that the neural circuits for loving-kindness and compassion deactivate, the activity of the vagus nerve declines, oxytocin plunges, cortisol rises, so your body gets tense and your blood pressure jumps when you think of someone you hate/dislike.

Hate is a byproduct of the fear response. When we sense that we are in danger, a part of our brain, called the amygdala, triggers the circuits for fear and vigilance to warn us to be more cautious. If we identify an actual threat, it triggers the fight or flight response. Depending on the situation, we may feel a sense of anger and outrage towards the person or people threatening us —aka “the enemy.” If we cannot immediately act on the fight or flight response because we are in a powerless position to do so, we channel that fear and anger into a desire for revenge, a wish for that person/people to suffer. The neural circuitry for hate shows that it involves the areas for premeditation, drive, planning, and storytelling.

When people want revenge, the thought of something bad happening to their “enemy” activates the reward circuit, which is why people can relish their “enemy’s” suffering. In contrast, when you love someone, the idea of something bad happening to that person activates the compassion and empathy circuits, making you feel their pain as your own and motivates you to alleviate their suffering. When the love circuits are strongly activated, this calms down the fear circuits. This is how people can perform extraordinary acts of courage to help loved ones in danger.

For those who are spiritually inclined, this understanding of the brain may shed new light on what Jesus meant when he said “Love your enemies.” If the circuits for love are not strongly developed, the circuits for hate and fear can hijack the brain. To love your enemies means you keep the circuits for love activated even when interacting with people who may condemn, threaten, or mistreat you.

We are biofeedback/neurofeedback machines. The activation of neuronal networks in our brains directly reflect our emotional states. The thing is our hardwiring is largely a result of unconscious, automatic, and reactive patterns of thinking and feeling, conditioned by past experiences — in particular our traumas. The pattern of neural circuits that fire in our brain usually are biased by how our inner narrator weaves stories inside our minds. These stories, if we believe them, become self-fulfilling prophecies. Often, these stories are very critical and disempowering towards ourselves and others. These negative stories turn off the circuits for love and compassion and turn on the circuits for stress, anxiety and rumination. By doing so, they create a cascade of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers and hormones that wreak havoc on our bodies.

These observations have led me to meditate on how trauma and pain prompts some people to turn into channels of fear, hate and blame and yet prompts other people to forgive, build bridges, and become stronger. In the face of adversity, why do some people crumple and lose hope while others become beacons of light and help bring people up?

I think it might have something to do with our capacity to keep our hearts from closing. Physiologically, this is tied to the activity of our vagus nerve, which connects the brain to all our internal organs, including the heart. The main function of the vagus nerve is to carry messages from these organs to the brain, meaning this nerve is how the heart and the gut speak to the brain. When we are in fight-flight-freeze mode, the function of the vagus nerve is impaired or deactivated. Heart rate jumps and digestion is put on hold. When the circuits for love are strongly activated, the function of the vagus nerve is optimized, thus allowing the heart to “speak” freely to the circuits for love, compassion and empathy in the brain.

Here is an exercise that may help people experience and understand this more directly.

Part 1.
1. Think of someone you love most in the world-it could be your spouse, child, parent, or best friend.
2. Close your eyes and visualize them in front of you, and say to them: May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be peaceful, may you be prosperous, may you live in harmony with others.
3. Imagine love flowing from your heart and enveloping this person, visualize them happy, healthy and flourishing.

Part 2.
1. Think of someone you have a difficult relationship with. It could be a nemesis, someone who hurt you badly, or a political candidate you are opposed to.
2. Close your eyes and visualize them in front of you, and say to them: May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you be peaceful, may you be prosperous, may you live in harmony with others.
3. Imagine love flowing from your heart and enveloping this person, visualize them happy, healthy, successful and flourishing.

Part 3.
Now compare how you felt in part 1 and part 2. Did you feel your heart open for your loved one but close when you thought of this other person? Was it hard to send love to this person in part 2? Did you struggle to visualize this person happy, healthy, successful and flourishing?

If your answers to these questions is yes, that is a sign that your circuits for love are not yet strong enough to conquer fear and hate. Until your circuits for love are strong enough to keep your heart open for Part 2, it is possible for your fear and hate to hijack your higher brain.

About the Author:

Due Quach is a social entrepreneur who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, graduated from Harvard College and the Wharton School of Business, and built an international career in management consulting and private equity investments. Having started life in poverty as a refugee from Vietnam who suffered severe trauma, Due created Calm Clarity to share the powerful neuroscience-based techniques she developed to heal PTSD, master her mind, and become her best self.​ Her book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment and Joy is one of Fast Company’s 7 Best Business Books of 2018.

Due also founded the Collective Success Network, a nonprofit that collaborates with the wider business community to increase socioeconomic inclusion by mentoring, supporting, and empowering low-income, first-generation college students to successfully navigate college and enter professional careers.

After living and traveling all around the world, Due is once again a proud resident of Philadelphia, her hometown.

Founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people across the socioeconomic spectrum master their mind and be their best self.

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