Friday, September 28, 2012

Why Does Love Make Us Do Crazy Things? Science Answers: Your Brain In Love, And In Lust

Science finally has the answers to questions such as, “Why does love make us do crazy things?”

The Chemistry Between Us attempts to do what no other book has done: present a grand unified theory of how love, sex, and human social bonding is created in our brains, how that creation drives our behavior, and to place these mechanisms into social, historical and even political contexts.

Romantic love portrayed in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" 1893, by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

Provocative, opinionated, and written with humor and insight for the lay reader, The Chemistry Between Us offers answers to some of the most tumultuous, joyous, heart-breaking, questions every one of us faces at some time in our lives, and asks us to consider the broader social impact of molecular events in our heads.

In "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction," now available nationwide, neuroscientist Larry Young and journalist Brian Alexander draw on human stories and cutting-edge research from around the world to flesh out the behaviors that govern our lives, such as physical attraction, infidelity and mother-infant bonding, and explain how our brains exert control over some of the most important and tumultuous decisions and events of our lives.

Young is chief of the division of behavioral neuroscience at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, the director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory University and the William P. Timmie Professor of Psychiatry at Emory's School of Medicine.

Co-author Alexander is the author of several books, including "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books) and "America Unzipped: The Search for Sex and Satisfaction" (Crown/Harmony). He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award and recognized by Medill School of Journalism's John Bartlow Martin awards for public interest journalism and the Association of Healthcare Journalists.

Their book expands on Young's well-known research on the social neuroscience of bonding, most famously in voles, that what we call love is really the result of neurochemicals acting on defined brain circuits. They move from that simple premise to profound concepts about gender, sexuality, monogamy, infidelity, lust, parenting and the social and cultural implications of them all.

The authors explain the fascinating science behind questions such as:

Why is there a female and a male brain – and what does that mean for our understanding of gender and sexuality?

What's the difference in brain chemistry between a woman with a new baby and one with a new boyfriend? (hint: not much)

Why do we cheat on our spouses, and are some of us genetically more likely to cheat?
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Among those giving advance praise for the book is Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes and New York Times best selling author, who says, “This lively book by a great neuroscientist and a savvy writer is the first popular account to tie together what we have learned about the chemistry of sex, love and family bonds. Progress in this field has been nothing short of breathtaking, and Larry Young is recognized as its leading pioneer. The way our brains react when boy meets girl determines the stability of marriage and the future of the human family.”

Via Young's Yerkes and CTSN research programs, he focuses on understanding the genetic and neurobiological mechanisms underlying complex social behaviors, including social bonding and social attachments. This work has important implications for psychiatric disorders characterized by disruption in social cognition, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Young and his colleagues not only want to better understand the social brain, they want to develop new treatment strategies for improving social functioning.
What makes two people, strangers before meeting for the first time, conclude that they not only would like to, but must, spend the rest of their lives together? What could happen inside the brain of a sober, responsible, married man, a federal judge, to enable him to carry a loaded pistol while buying drugs for his stripper paramour? How could male violence relate to the brain chemistry of love? Why would a young woman, happily committed to her boyfriend, flirt with a jerk?

What can the story of a young adoptee tell us about our current culture of parenting? What drives a mother to behave like a mother, and what does that have to do with human romantic love? How are grown men like babies? (Besides the whole whiny-with-the-flu thing.) What can we learn from rats that refuse to have sex unless they're wearing leather? What's the relationship between sexual fetish and love, and drug addiction and love?

What is gender? Do brains have a gender? How can some people be attracted to others of the same sex? What causes a person with all the body parts of a man to insist he's a woman? Or a bodily female person to insist she's a man?

Readers on the left and the right, people of all faiths, sexual orientations, and relationship status, are bound to find elements of The Chemistry Between Us that they'll object to fiercely, only to read on and find something to applaud. At the very least, readers will be fascinated, and likely to find themselves asking some serious, and some not-so-serious, questions about the world we're making and how that world might be affecting the very nature of human relationships.

Excerpt 1

Many scientists in the post-World War II decades hoped to perform electrophysiology experiments on people, but it's tough to recruit volunteers willing to have metal electrodes shoved into their brains, and, even if they could have done so, academic administrators were understandably squeamish about the idea. This state of affairs frustrated psychiatrist Robert Galbraith Heath. Despite holding a prestigious position at Columbia University in New York, where he studied schizophrenia, Heath chafed under the university's ethical restrictions. He could experiment on rodents, and sometimes monkeys, but he wanted access to human beings.

Tulane University took a different view from that of Columbia. The school had big aspirations of becoming a major intellectual hub in the South, but it had trouble attracting top-flight talent. When the university's ambitious pooh-bahs decided they wanted to start a psychiatry department, they targeted Heath to be the man in charge. Compared with Columbia, Tulane was a backwater. But when the school looked around New Orleans and the state, it realized that the city's large Charity Hospital, which served the poor, and the state of Louisiana's mental hospitals represented a deep pool of possible human experimental subjects. Tulane offered Heath access to this vast amount of what he called "clinical material," and he joined the faculty in 1949.

The next year he began placing electrodes-sometimes more than a dozen at a time-into the brains of people. He often noticed that shooting electricity into certain brain regions produced pleasurable feelings, much like what Olds and Milner would later find in rats. Unlike rats, though, people can talk. When they described the nature of the pleasure they felt, they sometimes told Heath it was most definitely erotic.

In 1972, Heath conducted an especially notorious experiment (in a career of notorious work), during which he tried to convert "B-19," a twenty-four-year-old gay man, into a heterosexual by implanting eight electrodes into his septal region. Heath combined the sensory reward of the zaps with a pornographic movie, and the attentions of a twenty-one-year-old prostitute, so that B-19 would associate pleasure in his brain with heterosexuality. Eleven months after the "therapy," Heath declared the experiment a triumph and suggested using brain stimulation as a way to reinforce desired behavior and "extinguish" undesired behavior (thus providing antipsychiatry fodder to Scientologists and mind-control conspiracy theorists everywhere).

In fact, B-19's "conversion" should be viewed with great skepticism. Heath, who was not in the room during the tryst between the prostitute and B-19, relied on her version of what happened. She claimed a great success, with orgasms all around, despite the fact that B-19 had never before had sex with a woman, that the wires sticking out of his head and connecting him to a machine made the gymnastics of sex a little awkward, and that prostitutes rarely climax with their clients. Even so, B-19's posttherapy story of conducting a brief sexual relationship with a married woman (not interviewed by Heath) who never allowed B-19 to ejaculate in her vagina, and his assertion that he'd had gay sex "only" twice since his treatment, were enough for Heath to declare victory over homosexuality.

Excerpt 2

From the moment Maria arrived in Pennsylvania, she was afraid of just about everything. A red aircraft-warning light atop a nearby radio tower terrified her into sleeplessness. Mooing cows elicited frightened squeals. After her hair finally grew out, and it was time for a trip to a stylist for a cut, Maria resisted getting in the chair. Not unlike many other children, she expressed fear during her first barber visit. But, unlike most children, she continued to be afraid, shaking so badly that the stylist finally suggested using scissors to give her a quiet trim. That strategy worked, until another stylist switched on a pair of electric clippers. Maria leaped from the chair, screaming.

At first, Maria seems comfortable and at ease when she and Brian take a short drive. But then, on the return trip, as Brian drives closer to the Marshalls' house, he says, "Let's go a little farther down the road, OK?"

"There's our driveway!" Maria says urgently.

"I know, but let's look at some of the farms."

"You're passing our driveway!"

Half a mile later, Maria says, "I think we better turn around." So Brian pulls into a neighbor's driveway. "I don't think they'll like this," Maria says. As Brian situates the car to head back out into the lane, she says, "I think we should go now."

Among other things, Maria has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The week before our visit, she packed twenty-two pairs of underwear for a four-day camping trip. "She said she didn't know why," Ginny recalls, "but she worried all week about it." She still has a menu of fears. Electrical cords disturb her. Anything medically related, like hospital beds and stethoscopes, can cause a panic.

Maria has intellectual difficulties, but she isn't mentally disabled in the ways we'd assume. She's how she is because of how she was treated for twenty-seven months....

Joy King finds the face-to-face part a troublesome business. King is a former vice president of special projects at Wicked Pictures, one of the world's largest producers of adult entertainment, and now works as a consultant. She started her career in the 1980s, and since then she has become known as something of a savant about what consumers of mainstream porn will buy. It was King who transformed an unknown stripper and wannabe actor named Jenna Marie Massoli into the mainstream-media juggernaut Jenna Jameson.

Wicked Pictures mostly produces so-called couples films. Since this genre eschews fringe and bizarre scenes in favor of tamer, mostly heterosexual, fantasy, King tries to create imagery that will appeal to women as well as to men. She often travels to fan shows, conventions, and retail-store events. She maintains an online social-networking presence so she can talk to consumers, especially women, and ask them what they'd like to see.

King admits it's tough to generalize, but one thing most women agree on is that, while bodies and body parts are welcome, faces are vital. "I met recently with a woman director who is going to be shooting a new line for us, and one of the things we discussed about the marketplace is the importance of eye contact, and shooting eye contact," she tells us. "We need these two people to look deeply into each other's eyes. Oddly enough, she said one of the most difficult things to get her performers to do is look into each other's eyes ."

King once tried an experiment of her own by concertedly making eye contact with people she encountered in lines, on the street, in cafés, and through her work. She found that her gaze made most people uncomfortable. "It makes them turn away," she says. Yet when she's been sexually involved with another person, she finds herself doing a lot of eye gazing. Her man will gaze into her eyes, too. It seems not only comfortable but essential. She realized that people don't generally stare into others' eyes-doing so in the animal world is often viewed as a threat-"unless they are engaged in some sort of relationship, and especially people who are in a relationship and having sex."

As unlikely as it may seem, both Joy King's porn problem and Dr. Long's century-old sex advice directly relate to the reasons why Maria has difficulty empathizing with others, why mothers look at their babies, and, ultimately, to the genesis of human romantic love.

Excerpt 3

Information like this ought to make us pause and attempt a panoramic view of our culture. We've been busy building a pretty anxious one. In doing so, we may be changing the collective social brain.

For example, the economy may not appear to have much to do with love, desire, and bonding. But consider something Strathearn often does. We know he thinks motherhood might be getting off to a bad start in the United States and other developed nations-but not just because of what goes on in our hospitals. "The mother brings the baby home from the hospital, and soon goes back to work and puts the child in day care." If you look at our world through the lens of bonding, Strathearn says, that may not be such a good idea. "You look at our society and the patterns we've created. We think we are making our lives better, but are we? Or are we creating perhaps more subtle-or not so subtle-problems?"

Mother-infant bonding is the keystone of all human bonding. But in our current economic world, many parents, single or not, have little choice but to return to work as soon as possible after giving birth. Stay-at-home parenting has become a luxury, and it's not just because parents want a ski boat or two weeks at Claridge's in London. It's because we're being crushed by health-insurance premiums, by caring for our parents, by college tuition costs, by fears of unemployment, by a changing workscape in which if you snooze, you lose.

Arguments over the economy and family life have been going on since the 1970s, but research into such questions has traditionally fallen into the realm of social science, making it vulnerable to accusations that its findings are "squishy." Now, though, social neuroscience is producing hard data that explain actual mechanisms behind how the emotional connections between parent and infant affect the developing brain, then go on to influence the next generation. In rats, we know how this happens-right down to the molecule.

Few people recognize just how important this research could be. Policy makers, politicians, and lobbyists are stuck in a past time, tossing out "personal responsibility" and then advocating for severe budget cuts, even for effective programs that intervene in the cycle of negative parenting. Such a cut might save a penny now, only to rack up a wave of costs later. It's fine to argue that a teen mother only has herself to blame for bearing a child she's not equipped to raise, that she should buck up and show responsibility. But such tropes assume perfect, rational control. As we've seen, there's no such thing. Like it or not, some will fail, and then society will bear the expense of future difficulties encountered, or caused by, a child raised in an emotionally or physically deprived home.

It's possible that the very culture of communication we've spent the past fifty years creating and congratulating ourselves about could be contributing to an alienated society because it bypasses the neural circuits meant to foster communal love. Too little direct human-to-human stimulation of these circuits can stunt their development. E-mail, texting, Twitter, Facebook-digital worship in general-have led to less face-to-face contact, all the while promoting the impression that technology can mimic the physical presence of human beings in time and space. We buy groceries in self-serve aisles, bank online or via ATMs, shop on our computers. We've created what Postman called a "Technopoly."

Excerpted from The Chemistry Between Us by Larry Young and Brian Alexander by arrangement with Current Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Larry Young and Brian Alexander.

"The Chemistry Between Us" is published by Current, an imprint of the Penguin Group.

Contacts and sources:
By Lisa Newbern | 
Emory University
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