Can Love Help You Forget Painful Memories?

 "Perfect love casts out fear." 

-Gospel of John 4:18

It's now a firmly established fact that loving attachments are an important component of good health. According to dozens of epidemiological studies, people in long-term relationships are significantly less likely to suffer from cancer, viral infections, mental illness, pneumonia, and dementia. They have fewer surgeries, car accidents, and heart attacks. Their wounds heal faster and they have a lower risk of auto-immune diseases. 

Consider the results from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been tracking 268 Harvard men since the late 1930s. While the study set out to identify the medical measurements that could predict health outcomes—they tracked everything from the circumference of the chest to the hanging length of the scrotum—none of the data proved useful. Instead, what George Vaillant and other scientists discovered after tracking the men for nearly seven decades is that "the capacity for love turns out to be a great predictor of mortality." For instance, those men in the "loveless" category—they had the fewest attachments—were three times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness and five times more likely to be "unusually anxious." The loneliest men were also ten times more likely to suffer from a chronic illness before the age of fifty-two and three times more likely to become heavy users of alcohol and tranquilizers. 

Those are just a few of the tragic correlations. (I wrote more about them in A Book About Love, which is soon out in paperback.) Nevertheless, the causal mechanics of these health benefits are unclear. How, exactly, do close relationships prevent such a wide variety of serious illnesses, from alcoholism to heart disease? Why does love keep us alive?

Those practical mysteries are the subject of a new paper in PLOS One by Erica Hornstein and Naomi Eisenberger, psychologists at UCLA. The scientists began by asking subjects to identify “the individual who gives you the most support on a daily basis.” They were told that these individuals could come from any relationship: parent, friend, romantic partner, etc.  The subjects were then asked to provide a picture of this supportive figure.

The experiment itself was a classic fear learning paradigm. First, the scientists had to calibrate the proper amount of electric shock for each subject: they wanted the experience to be “extremely uncomfortable, but not painful.”  (The shock is what triggers the fear.) During the acquisition phase, the subjects were shown various neutral images, such as different clocks and stools. One of these images was paired with a picture of their social support figure while the other was paired with a stranger matched for gender, age and ethnicity. Finally, these images and faces were matched to that “extremely uncomfortable” electric shock. This pairing process was repeated six times.

It might seem unlikely that the mere picture of a loved one could keep us from remembering a fearful association. Nevertheless, when Hornstein and Eisenberger measured fear responses using the skin conductance response of the hand—when you’re scared or anxious, the hands begin to sweat—they found a dramatic difference between the images paired with support figures and strangers.

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What accounts for this striking difference? According to the scientists, the most plausible explanation is that the picture of a loved one can “inhibit the formation of fear associations,” preventing us from remembering those scary stimuli in the first place. This builds on related work by Erica Hornstein, Michael Fanselow and Naomi Eisenberger showing that pictures of social support figures can also enhance fear extinction, so that subjects are less likely to react to images that had previously been paired with an electric shock. In short, thinking of a loved one can serve as a useful form of amnesia, at least when it comes to fear memories.

This is pure speculation, but I wonder if studies like this might be used to develop new therapeutic tools. So much of therapy is about learning how to retell our personal history in less painful ways, reducing those triggers that send us into paroxysms of fear, anxiety and despair. One obvious approach would be make sure our retellings of negative events are somehow told in conjunction with our support figures. Maybe it involves having a picture of a partner nearby, or asking questions about the trauma that frame the event in terms of how our attachment figures helped us through. When it comes to buffering the bad stuff, the best medicine is the people we love. A good relationship is like Xanax without the side-effects.

Hornstein, Erica A., and Naomi I. Eisenberger. "Unpacking the buffering effect of social support figures: Social support attenuates fear acquisition." PloS one 12.5 (2017): e0175891.