What happens in your brain when you reconnect with an old flame

I believed my first loves (I’m using the plural in order to propagate an image of being one of the “popular” girls) were indelibly etched in my heart. The experiences we shared together, and even how we separated, stay with me in a positive and healthy way and helped form the person I am today.

Now I learn that all my first loves are not in my heart. They are lodged in my BRAIN. 

Experts say the neurological attachment that happens between young lovers is not unlike the attachment a baby forms with its mother. Hormones like vasopressin and oxytocin are key in helping create a sense of closeness in relationships and play a starring role in both scenarios.

If that person was your first, best or most intimate, the mark is even more indelible. Such preferential encoding in the brain is one reason why stories of people reconnecting with a high school or college flame are commonplace.

Feelings of romantic love trigger the brain’s dopamine system, which drives us to repeat pleasurable experiences. The brain’s natural opiates help encode the experience, and oxytocin acts as the glue that helps forge those feelings of closeness.*

“Oxytocin unleashes a network of brain activity that amplifies visual cues, odors and sounds,” explains Larry Young, a psychiatry professor at Emory University in Atlanta. That, plus the effects from your brain’s natural opiates and dopamine, and your romantic partner’s traits — strong jaw, piercing blue eyes, musky scent — leave a sort of neural fingerprint. Those preferences become soft-wired into your reward system, just like an addiction.”

Even creatures prone to promiscuity, like rats, are often primed to revisit their first pleasure-inducing partner, according to a 2015 study co-authored by Pfaus. And it seems humans may follow a similar pattern.

“WHO said I was promiscuous?”

Seeing a first love can instantly reactivate the networks your mind encoded decades ago. Throw a bear hug into the mix — and the accompanying flood of oxytocin —  that old brain circuitry lights up like fireworks. Justin Garcia, the associate director for research and education at the Kinsey Institute, says that just like a recovering alcoholic craving a drink after decades of sobriety, we can still be drawn to an old lover.

“It doesn’t mean you still want to be with that person,” he says. “It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It means there’s a complex physiology associated with romantic attachments that probably stays with us for most of our lives — and that’s not something to be afraid of, particularly if you had a great run.”

When Reconnecting Makes Sense – single, divorced or widowed?

“Most people have a lost love they wonder about. Someone who held your hand through transformative moments and helped you define you. Love research supports the notion that it’s psychologically intoxicating to reconnect with a former flame you still feel friendly toward; the brain lights up the same way a cocaine addict’s does before a hit.”

“But, unless you’re single, divorced or widowed, it’s probably best to avoid searching for that old love on Facebook. According to psychologist Nancy Kalish, professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, when social media collides with a generally happy marriage, the results can be disastrous. A whopping 62 percent of married folks in her study wound up having an affair with their ex — even though they didn’t reach out to them with any such plan in mind.”

“You can’t compare the person who you experienced a first or early love with to someone who you’ve had a deep abiding love with for many years through the course of a marriage,” Kalish says. “Both are good and both are powerful.”

“So before you follow an ex on Twitter, send them a Facebook message or stalk them on Instagram, consider two big factors: Are you single? And if not, are you prepared to let reconnecting with your ex devastate your current relationship? If the answer to either question is “yes,” you could be in for a pleasant reunion with an old friend,” Kalish says.

[This article originally appeared in print as “Fired Up.”]

*According to a 2010 study published in The Journal of Neurophysiology

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