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Gemma Calvert

How Singaporeans must deal with the head vs heart dilemma

BY GEMMA CALVERT

If past surveys are anything to go by, well over 60% of Singaporeans will be rushing out to buy their sweethearts and loved ones gifts this Valentines’ Day.

And despite a recent Gallup report suggesting that Singapore is one of the least emotional countries in the world, other research has shown that Singaporeans tend to embrace Valentine’s Day with greater vigour than many of their Asian neighbours.

But as couples head out for that romantic dinner tonight, should they be listening to their heads or their hearts?

The case for the head
Over the past few years, brain scans have shown that romantic love stimulates the brain in the same way as drugs such as cocaine. The euphoria experienced in the first blooms of a relationship is often produced by the release of dopamine – the brains’ feel good chemical.

This explains why in the early stages of relationships we can become addicted to love, because love is in essence, a drug in itself.

So does this mean that we have no control over who we fall in love with? Neuroscience is now revealing that our subconscious brain is more in control of our behaviour than we previously thought.

From what we eat, to whom we love, our subconscious brain is often calling the shots. So is there anything we can do about it?

Research published this month on Chinese men and women in love, showed that the way their brains responded to images of their sweethearts in the early stages of a relationship predicted whether or not they were still together 40 months later.

Consistent with previous brain scans, when each individual was shown an image of the person with whom they were in love, the brain’s pleasure centre became activated.

But interestingly, those who showed the lowest level of activity in the brain’s reward area (the same site that also relates to addiction) were more likely to be in the same relationship over 3 years later.

Related research has shown that an individual’s ability to dampen down activity in this brain region has been linked to satiety and satisfaction. In a similar vein, those whose relationships persisted showed lower levels of activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex which the scientists said made those people less critical and judgemental about their partners.

But while we may have little control over who we fall in love with, psychologists have shown that our conscious brain is capable of modulating our behaviour to nurture or damage what our innate desires and human chemistry has put together. Developing skills that allow us to maintain realistic expectations and learn to become less critical can help ensure our relationships last longer.

The case for the heart
Although many of us would accept that when we take decisions from the heart, we are actually referring to the subconscious reaction in our brain, fascinating new research suggests that the literal explanation may be more accurate than we realised. It turns out that the human heart contains a little brain in its own right, consisting of about 40,000 neurons that can sense, feel, learn and remember.

These heart brain cells send signals about how the body feels to the brain in our heads and vice versa. When we experience positive emotions such as love and compassion, the heart brain processes these emotions and its rhythm can become more coherent. This information is in turn relayed to the brain and can influence the way we behave towards the source of these positive emotions. It seems then that those who listen to their hearts may not be entirely irrational after all.

So it seems that the jury is out in terms of whether we should do better to listen to our heads or hearts. When it comes to true love, this may amount to the same strategy after all.
 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Gemma Calvert

Gemma Calvert

Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.

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