Cold creates a neurochemical cocktail of attraction
Whole-body cold water immersion is a natural love potion. It stimulates all the hormones and neurochemicals associated with the brain systems of love:
Testosterone increases libido.
Dopamine & norepinephrine increase romantic attraction.
Vasopressin & oxytocin boost attachment bonding.
During a photoshoot in Sedona, I experienced the love potion effects of a couples cold plunge.
At the start of the video, you can see how my partner and I could barely look at one another. After a minute in the ice bath, we soften. After two minutes, we're laughing. After three minutes, we're kissing and ready to make out like teenagers.
A couples cold plunge can rekindle feelings of attraction. So far, it has a better track record than most marriage counselors.
Evolutionary biology meets 21st century technology
Does technology make us comfortable, miserable, or both?
Human anatomy, including our brains, hasn’t changed much since Homo sapiens are thought to have first appeared on Earth about 250,000 years ago. That is, the basic structures of our physiology, our neurochemistry, and our DNA are pretty much the same as they were for Adam and Eve.
What has changed is technology.
Infrastructure and information systems make our lives safer, more convenient, and more comfortable than ever. In fact, the modern, industrialized lifestyle is now so safe, so convenient, and so comfortable that it’s killing us.
Highly processed foods wreck our metabolism. Automobiles displace exercise. Modern buildings and artificial fabrics keep us warm, safe, and sheltered, but they also disconnect us from the sun, the forest, the water, and the natural environment that both threatened our ancient ancestors and kept them healthy.
In the United States life expectancy has dropped from a high of 78.9 years in 2014 to 77.3 years in 2020. Life satisfaction is down, mental health disorders and suicide rates are climbing, and recent surveys say that today’s young adults are less likely to be dating, get married, or find committed sexual partners than previous generations (Useda et al. 2018). If everything is faster, easier, better, and cheaper than it was for our great-grandparents, then why are we so miserable about it?
Maybe it's because the old dating rituals are now obsolete.
The biggest myth of marriage counseling
John Gottman, PhD, wrote that the "biggest myth" of couples counseling is that happy marriages rely on effective communication skills. According to Gottman, strategies like reflective listening and empathetic perspective-taking do not work.
Communication therapy is all about thoughts. For example, reflective listening is cognitive. It’s about thinking and understanding. Yet, from a neurochemical perspective, love is about feelings, not thoughts. Gottman writes:
The message you'll get (from marriage counseling) is pretty uniform: learn to communicate better. The sweeping popularity of this approach is easy to understand. When most couples find themselves in a conflict (whether it gets played out as a short spat, an all-out screaming match, or stony silence), they each gird themselves to win the fight. They become so focused on how hurt they feel, on proving that they're right and their spouse is wrong, or on keeping up a cold shoulder, that the lines of communication between the two may be overcome by static or shut down altogether. So it seems to make sense that calmly and lovingly listening to each other's perspective would lead couples to find compromise solutions and regain their marital composure. The most common technique recommended for resolving conflict--used in one guise or another by most marital therapists—is called active listening. By forcing couples to see their differences from each other's perspective, problem solving is supposed to take place without anger. The problem is that it doesn't work. - Gottman & Silver (2015)
To overcome the ineffectiveness of this popular misconception, Gottman focuses on feelings rather than on thoughts. He finds that couples who behave towards one another in ways that elicit negative feelings (resentment, apathy, contempt) are far less likely to remain committed to one another than couples who stimulate positive feelings.
The neurochemistry of love
Positive feelings are characterized by neurochemical signatures. That is, feelings change brain chemistry, and brain chemistry changes feelings. Therefore, when couples feel more loving towards one another, we can surmise that the neurochemical conditions in their brain reflect those feelings.
In Couples Cold Therapy I described the neurochemical characteristics of the three different brain systems of love:
Testosterone drives lust, in both men and women.
Dopamine and norepinephrine drive romantic crushes.
Vasopressin and oxytocin drive attachment bonds, like the type we feel for family members.
Just a few minutes in a cold plunge will stimulate the production of all of these hormones and neurotransmitters, creating these multi-dimensional feelings of love.
Is a cold plunge better than marriage counseling?
The cold water creates stress. It should be no surprise that couples who feel unsupported or abandoned by their spouses are unlikely to be experiencing the neurochemical rush that is characteristic of the different brain systems of love. However, when plunging together it's possible that the neurochemical stimulation from the cold water they both experience at the same time will rekindle the affection the couple may have lost.
These neurochemical realities beg the question:
If we could induce production of love hormones and neurotransmitters in two people simultaneously, could their shared neurochemical experience cause them to fall in love?
A few years after separating from my wife, I had an experience that felt exactly like that.
I was doing a photoshoot for Morozko Forge in Sedona, AZ. My daughter was the photographer, and AJ Kay agreed to accompany me as a model. We had been dating for a couple of years. She was using ice baths to help correct her metabolism after the frightening discovery of a tumor on her liver, and I thought her previous experience as a runway model would help us organize a good shoot.
The only problem was that we were in a foul mood with each other. We were experiencing exactly the kind of resentment and contempt that the Gottmans say is certain to lead to separation.
We made the two-hour drive up from Phoenix AZ to Sedona in separate cars. When we arrived on the set, I wasn’t sure she was really going to go through with the photoshoot.
The plan was for us to plunge into the Morozko ice bath together, holding hands, the fact was that we were in no mood for such intimacy. Nevertheless, we climbed into the freezing water together. We clasped hands. We stared into one another’s eyes.
And something profound changed between us.
As we breathed together, the clouds of contempt that characterized our argument cleared.
We softened towards one another. We smiled. Then we laughed.
Then AJ leaned in and kissed me.
After just three minutes in the ice bath together, it felt like we had fallen back in love.
Gottman J, Silver N. 2015. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony.
Ueda P, Mercer CH, Ghaznavi C, Herbenick D. Trends in frequency of sexual activity and number of sexual partners among adults aged 18 to 44 years in the US, 2000-2018. JAMA network open. 2020 Jun 1;3(6):e203833-
About the Author
Thomas P Seager, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. Seager co-founded the Morozko Forge ice bath company and is an expert in the use of ice baths for building metabolic and psychological resilience. Subscribe to https://seagertp.substack.com/ for more information from Seager on taking charge of your own physical & mental health.
For more personal stories about journeying through the cold, listen to The Morozko Method podcast https://anchor.fm/adrienne68 hosted by Morozko Forge co-Founder Adrienne Jezick.