I dedicated a recent book (The Memory Advantage) to my wife, Kay, writing: "I knew when I met her that she would be unforgettable." One of the reasons Kay made such an impact on me is that she is devoted to the pursuit of knowledge — about everything from movie blockbusters and interior design to 18th-century epic poetry and primitive art.
Each day, Kay makes a point of learning new information and passing much of it on to me in the evening. For example, she recently read a book called The Intellectual Devotional (published by Rodale, which also publishes Prevention), from which we both learned the origin of John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost," the history of the Lascaux cave paintings in France, and more. I, too, share with Kay much of what I learn every day, and after years of doing this, we've become each other's best teacher.
From my perspective as a neuroscientist, this is ironic because the changes that occur in the brain during the early stages of love are not conducive to intellectual pursuits. The feeling of euphoria, the sometimes obsessive desire to be with your beloved … all make concentration on anything else almost impossible.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have actually observed the effects of love on the brain. When people in the early stages of infatuation are shown photos of their sweethearts and told to think about them, areas of the brain rich in the chemical dopamine are activated. Dopamine produces very powerful pleasurable sensations. Cocaine and amphetamine, for example, produce their effects by spurring the release of dopamine.
As relationships mature, however, those areas are less responsive to the mere sight of one's lover. To be successful, the relationship must evolve from dopamine-driven euphoria to a more mindful cultivation of love and respect. Flowers and candlelight dinners help, but so do exploring and experiencing the world together. In fact, one area of the brain that "lights up" in these later stages of love is the cortex, the same place where information is stored and rational decisions are made.
New information builds fresh neural networks at any age. Here are some ways to strengthen your marriage (and get smarter in the process):
Take dancing lessons. The combined physical and mental challenge is a great brain workout.
Watch movies and discuss the plot and characters. Research shows that men and women use different areas of the brain when viewing films, resulting in different perspectives and insights.
Throw a party for a diverse group and then debrief each other the next day. Areas of the brain involved in learning and memory can be stimulated by social interaction, and you may be surprised at how differently the two of you interpret the evening's party politics.
Learn a language together. Gradually incorporate new words and phrases into your conversations. Or sign up for Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Day." It's a free service (www.m-w.com) that delivers the definition and origin of a new word via e-mail each day.
Take on a home project to learn each other's skills. There is no reason a wife can't rewire a lamp or, speaking from experience, a husband can't learn about wall colors other than white.
At the very least, learning new skills together gives you and your spouse something to talk about other than the kids and work.