Rewiring our brains for healthy love
September 1st, 2011
07:40 AM ET

Rewiring our brains for healthy love

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

I frequently deal with people stuck in ruts, slumps and negative cycles of behavior, and I’m always interested in learning more about new ways to help them get back on the right track.

Sometimes a fresh idea comes from an unexpected source. For example, not too long ago I gave a lecture at a singles workshop in New York, after which a woman in her early 30s approached me.

“I need help,” she confessed after a few seconds of small talk. “I’m suffering from OCD.”

I stopped her to tell her that I probably couldn’t help her. I’m a sexuality counselor, not a psychiatrist, and obsessive compulsive disorder is not within my professional expertise.

“No, no. Not that OCD,” she interjected. “I mean that I suffer from obsessive compulsive dating. I’m not in control of my dating life anymore. I just keep dating and dating and it’s all a big blur, and then I feel depressed and rejected if I don’t hear back from a guy I didn’t even like in the first place. I lie awake all night feeling like I’ll always be alone, that I’ll never find ‘the one.’”

While the term “obsessive compulsive dating” brought a smile to my face, the way she defined her problem got me thinking. OCD (the real disorder) is a serious condition marked by a constant barrage of intrusive thoughts and powerful urges that lead to unhealthy patterns of behavior (such as the need to wash one’s hands 50 times a day).

Those afflicted with OCD often recognize that these intrusive thoughts don’t really make sense at a rational level, but they still feel compelled to respond to them. On a biological level, OCD has its roots in brain processes that can be traced to the development of unhealthy neural pathways and consequent chemical imbalances.

“Obsessive compulsive dating,” on the other hand, is not a real disorder. Yet wasn’t this young woman experiencing irrational obsessive thoughts - that she would never meet somebody, that she was destined to be alone - and then responding to them by compulsively filling her calendar with an endless stream of counterproductive behaviors (in the form of unwanted dates)?

And while it’s a stretch to say that this particular form of OCD was rooted in any sort of chemical imbalance, wasn’t it possible that hard-wired neural pathways reinforced those negative habits and behaviors?

A little research into neuropsychology introduced me to the concept of “neuroplasticity,” the brain’s natural ability to effectively “rewire” itself. While neuroplasticity has long been viewed as a process that characterizes the developing mind during formative childhood years, there has been a good deal of recent debate as to how much of the brain’s plasticity survives into adulthood. Can we replace old, well-worn neural pathways with new ones?

According to Dr. John Ratey in his book "A User’s Guide to the Brain," “The brain is not a computer that simply executes genetically predetermined programs. Nor is it a passive gray cabbage, victim to the environmental influences that bear upon it. Genes and environment interact to continually change the brain, from the time we are conceived until the moment we die. And we, the owners - to the extent that our genes allow it - can actively shape the way our brains develop throughout the course of our lives.”

But how can we accomplish this re-shaping process? In his provocative book, "The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force," Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz discusses his radical approach to the treatment of real OCD, based on the concept of mindfulness and the exertion of willpower.

Schwartz reasoned (and then demonstrated via fMRI scans of the brain) that if patients could learn to reassess their obsessive compulsions and then consistently react differently to them, they would eventually alter the neural pathways that underlie them.

According to his four-step approach, patients “Relabel their obsessions and compulsions as false signals, symptoms of a disease. They reattribute those thoughts and urges to pathological brain circuitry. They refocus, turning their attention away from the pathological thoughts and urges onto a constructive behavior. And finally, they revalue the OCD obsessions and compulsions, realizing that they have no intrinsic value, and no inherent power.”

Why shouldn’t we be able to apply a similar process to our love lives? Couldn’t we all use a little refocusing and revaluing?

To that young woman with her case of “obsessive compulsive dating,” and to others stuck in slumps and ruts, it’s inspiring to know that neuroplasticity shows us that what’s been done can potentially be undone, and that if we take the steps to mindfully change our actions, our brains will follow.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.