Love On The Mind

Happily Married Couples’ Brains Are Literally In Sync

Soulmates, you say? A new study makes a strong case that brain synchronization is driving happy loving couples.

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A young couple spending time together on a mountain hike in Utah, USA.
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The term “soulmates” is usually used to describe couples who appear to have an inexplicably deep connection that allows them to anticipate each other’s needs and finish each other’s sentences. But a new study offers evidence that this connection may be more fundamental — and that brain activity may help explain and clarify why some married couples are happier than others.

Appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the study took an in-depth look at 35 married heterosexual couples in China who each completed the Big Five Personality Inventory as well as several questionnaires on marital satisfaction, personality, and attachment.

The researchers then used functional MRI scans to measure brain activity as the participants watched assorted movie clips. Some of the clips portrayed scenes where couples talked about their relationship, sex, or kids, while others focused on subjects outside the scope of relationships such as documentaries about food or flowers.

Regardless of marital satisfaction, synchronized neural activity didn’t occur when couples viewed the object-related clips. But when they watched clips focused on relationships, couples who reported greater marital satisfaction were much more likely to show activity in similar parts of the brain.

In other words, the happiest couples' brain activities were in sync — to a point.

"The effects are really specific to the context," study author Dr. Vinod Menon explained in an article published by Stanford Medicine. "It's not generic synchronization to every stimulus." In this case, only content about relationships were a neural match for the happiest couples, a small but surprising sign that there’s a biological underpinning to happy couples.

Whether that brain function is learned, genetic, or something else altogether, however, is still up in the air.

In other words, this finding is interesting, but hardly the stuff that you’ll find in some high tech dating app anytime soon. The authors of the study also note that further research is needed to determine if a more diverse sample of couples produces similar results. And questions remain regarding the extent to which synchronization is progressive because people are often drawn to partners they share similarities with.

“We don’t know whether there are selection-based behaviors arising from similar brain activity in a relationship, or whether couples evolve over time to develop similar anticipatory and predictive brain representations,” Dr. Menon said in the Stanford Medicine interview.

And while neural synchronization indicates that two people are processing information similarly, the current study doesn’t delineate whether it’s a result of subconscious processes, conscious thoughts, or both.

That said, it may drive home the fact that happy couples need to be on the same page for many fundamental parts of life. Experts have found that strong partnerships embrace habits and practices that help get them on the same page when they disagree. And healthy conflict resolution can help couples grow together and empathize with each other. Fortunately, you don’t need to have matching neural pathways to empathize and grow closer — it just might make it a little easier.

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