Nonattachment Is Not Indifference: The Neurobiology of Love

Nonattachment is not the same as indifference or a lack of caring. Letting someone you care for have the freedom to grow, to make mistakes, or even to leave you can be painful. Just because you practice nonattachment does not mean that your life automatically becomes happy and comfortable. If it does, then there is the chance you may have mistaken nonattachment for indifference.

As humans, we are wired to connect with each other. Our brains are designed to drive us toward relationship and community, although our society does not always model healthy relationships that are truly loving. I am currently writing an article on this topic so I thought I might share some of what I have found with you.

There are two major obstacles to practicing nonattachment. Neuroscience can help to explain some of these barriers to freedom. The first is falling prey to infatuation, which is a form of addiction. In fact, the brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine in the same way it would during addiction to a substance like cocaine (Fischer, 2005). That is what makes a break up from a relationship feel so horrible. It is a withdrawal from the brain chemicals that light up the reward pathway. People become objects of our addiction that we seek to possess, rather than friends to be  cherished. Infatuation did serve a purpose during human history. Those powerful attractions draw people together and ensure the formation of communities. It takes more than that to keep them together however.

The second reason that nonattachment can be difficult is due to the neural pathway of the feeling of social rejection. Rejection and severe physical pain are processed in the same brain area, the anterior insula (Eisenberger, 2011). During Hominin evolution, to be excluded from a group was akin to a death sentence. So the brain evolved a mechanism that would ensure that humans were driven to stay connected to social groups and bonded in friendships. The pain of rejection is more profound than any physical pain a person can withstand. It stays in the memory for a long time. Individuals who have suffered rejection in childhood have a lower threshold for the experience of this pain, and there are many of us. Sometimes the experience of nonattachment is perceived as a form of rejection. If the relationship is based on trust and care, then that will not be the case, and both people will have a conscious stake in the direction the relationship takes.

There is another way to begin to become free of the shackles of the fear of rejection and the addiction of infatuation, and that is to form deep and trusting friendships. That requires both people, to be honest, trustworthy, and caring and that is revealed through action as much as words. When people enter into mature friendships, the neurochemistry in the brain changes. Oxytocin and dopamine are released together causing a deep sense of well-being (Lewis, 2015). Oxytocin is the chemical responsible for human bonding and parental care. Relationships last longer, lifespan increases, and the immune system is healthier (Winch, 2014).


If variety is the spice of life, then neurotransmitters certainly play their part in making it interesting. Love, friendship, and infatuation are all a part of our experience. We experience them in our relationships like the colors in a kaleidoscope. Being aware of your intent is the first step in living consciously. Nonattachment is a lifelong practice. From a baby’s first steps, moving away from home, to the death of a loved one, we practice holding on and letting go in a beautiful dance of life. Love can never be reduced simply to brain chemicals. Love is a conscious choice we make continually. I know how difficult it can be, and our paths are littered with obstacles and illusions. Yet we are wonderfully wired to connect. We have a profound responsibility to love and forgive each other to the best of our ability.

Namaste my heart-1389860_960_720friends.




By Maria Gianna Iannucci

Works Cited:

Eisenberger, N. I. (2011). Why Rejection Hurts: What social neuroscience has revealed about the brain’s response to social rejection. Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342161.013.0039

Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Romantic love: An fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. The Journal of Comparative Neurology J. Comp. Neurol., 493(1), 58-62. doi:10.1002/cne.20772

Lewis, D. M., Al-Shawaf, L., Russell, E. M., & Buss, D. M. (2015). Friends and happiness: An evolutionary perspective on friendship. Friendship and Happiness, 37-57. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-9603-3_3

Winch, Guy. (2014). Emotional first aid: healing rejection, guilt, failure, and other everyday hurts. Plume Books.

Photo:  Copyright – (C) 2011 Andrew Ostrovsky


3 thoughts on “Nonattachment Is Not Indifference: The Neurobiology of Love

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Maria. I had learned a little of this before but it is good to be reminded. My family dynamics are getting ready to change, with 2 young adult children ready to leave the nest, and I’ve been struggling with that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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