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WHAT CAN NEUROSCIENCE TELL US ABOUT LONGEVITY IN RELATIONSHIPS?

What can neuroscience tell us about longevity in relationships
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary at the end of last year.  However, these days divorce, conscious uncoupling or not marrying at all seem all the rage.  So, as Valentine’s Day beckons, what can neuroscience – and the British Royals – tell us about longevity in relationships?

At the age of 13, Princess Elizabeth of England met for the first time her distant cousin, the 18 year old Prince Philip of Greece, and fell in love. Five years’ later, on the 20th November, 1947, at the age of 18, the Princess married the Naval Officer she had fallen in love with, who himself, in order to marry, rescinded his Greek title and became a British citizen – the Duke of Edinburgh. While theirs was to be a privileged life, no-one expected the happy, young couple to become the next leaders of the British monarchy, because her father’s brother Edward was next in line to be King. However, in order to marry divorcee Wallace Simpson, Edward abdicated and passed the role of King on to his brother. Yet, on the 6th February, 1952, just over 4 years’ after her wedding, Princess Elizabeth’s father King George VI died of lung cancer.Since the Princess’ parents had not had more children and she was the oldest, her father’s death catapulted the 21 year old to Queen of England and the Commonwealth. A year before this happened, on her 21st birthday, Princess Elizabeth, knowing by then that one day she would be Queen, made a speech while on a trip with her parents to Cape Town stating, “It is very simple. I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong.” And over the last 70 years the Queen and Prince Phillip have demonstrated a human ability that seems almost obselete across privileged and less fortunate alike – to remain loyal to the goals they set themselves all those years’ ago. What then, can neuroscience add, to help us understand how to achieve our future goals – such as to stay together with a partner – despite the trials, tribulations and mind changes that confront us all?The Queen and Prince Phillip have demonstrated both an ability to stay together for 70 years, and an ability to stick to their original goals to serve the Commonwealth, even though those goals were made when the world was very different – when neuroscience was not even invented yet! Neuroscience has, over the last decades, uncovered a huge amount of data about the underlying brain processes associated with the formulation and achievement of future goals, which can be related to longevity in relationships. In neuroscience, deficits in being able to achieve future goals are referred to as delay discounting, temporal discounting, or an inability to delay immediate gratification. Often, people who cannot achieve their original goals are impulsive, place higher value on immediate rewards, and are likely to be hyper-demonstrative when it comes to emotion. By contrast, think of the infamous British stiff upper lip, which may be a behaviour derived from the Queen’s ability to control her emotions and her impulsivity in order to achieve her future plans.

Placing a higher value on future as opposed to immediate reward is supported by an intact working

memory system in the brain. Working memory is the ability to hold in mind thoughts about things one would like to achieve in the future, without getting distracted by immediate stimuli. A strong working memory system also provides a strong sense of self and accomplishment – self-esteem gets stronger as more self-generated future goals are achieved. Furthermore, it is reported that people in happy, supportive relationships tend to live longer, happier lives (though it is, or course, better to be single than to remain in an abusive relationship). It is not easy fending off all the distractions in today’s fast-paced, hyper-stimulating digital age, and so one must regularly practice thinking about, and working towards one’s future relationship goals. To strengthen working memory, one can use cognitive training apps available online (see my website for more information), or simply repeat a self-generated mantra in mind over many months. 

It also helps to ‘find your tribe’, that is, to form friendships and romantic partnerships with people who have similar life goals. And I have no doubt that a strong working memory system is essential to keeping in mind, over many years, what it was that first made people fall in love with each other. It is highly likely that our stimulating modern world, full of tasty rewards, has weakened our ability to remember – like the Queen and Prince Phillip – what attracted us to our partners in the past, especially as we age during the passage of time. But rehearsing those memories of the first day you met your loved one – the first glance, the first touch, the first kiss, the first date – and thinking about what you were hoping for your future together when you first met, will strengthen your working memory and help you to achieve longevity (if you really want it!). And so, on the run-up to Valentine’s Day, remember that everybody – even the Queen and Prince Phillip – find relationships difficult at times. But if you can keep in mind the relationship goals you had in the past, you may be celebrating Valentine’s Day with a loved one for decades to come! Have a happy Valentine’s Day Harfield Villagers!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

Samantha Brooks6

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