Saturday, February 14, 2004

Special Valentine's Day Edition

We here at Respectful of Otters are marking this Valentine's Day with a raging case of bronchitis. (At least our antibiotics are a cheery, holiday-themed pink - albeit not heart-shaped.) But in spite of all that, I can't resist bringing you a roundup of the preposterous the-science-behind-love stories newspapers everywhere feel obliged to run on the 14th of February.

Some English researchers have discovered that the same neurochemical processes are at work in maternal and romantic love, particularly the parts in which the brain "suppresses brain activity governing critical social assessments of other people and negative emotions." Mothers have to feel that way about infants, so that they'll meet their ridiculously demanding needs without killing them. It's a bit disquieting to learn that the exact same process occurs between romantic lovers, isn't it?

The Economist has more details about the neurochemistry of love, although you have to read through quite a lot about the romantic lives of voles before you get to the human parts. It turns out that
The results were surprising. For a start, a relatively small area of the human brain is active in love, compared with that involved in, say, ordinary friendship. “It is fascinating to reflect”, the pair conclude, “that the face that launched a thousand ships should have done so through such a limited expanse of cortex.” The second surprise was that the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke.
Hands up, all who are surprised that most of the brain doesn't seem to be working when we're madly in love. But seriously, what they're saying is that romantic love activates the dopamine reward system, the major source of pleasurable and euphoric feelings in the brain. While it's true that drugs like cocaine also activate the dopamine reward system, saying that love is just like cocaine probably overstates the significance of the relationship. Love feels intensely good. Cocaine, I'm told, feels intensely good. It's therefore unsurprising that they'd activate the same parts of the brain. Although I suppose that "we're addicted to love!!!" makes a much better headline, from both a sensationalistic and a public-responsibility point of view, than "snorting cocaine will make you feel like you're in love!!!" ...which is equally true, from a scientific standpoint.

Lastly: we'll never run out of specious evolutionary psychology theories which purport to explain why our current social prejudices are biologically determined and thus fixed and unchangable. This one asserts that our true biological nature leads us to a combination of quasi-monogamous pair bonds and infidelity. The justification for this is supposedly that primitive man could only protect one family at a time from ravening predators, so despite screwing around all the time he only formed a romantic attachment to one woman. Not explained in this theory: if pair bonding is so damn natural, how come there have been so many polygamous cultures, widely dispersed across the globe and occurring throughout human history? Also not explained in this theory: given that most primitive peoples we know about have lived in extended-family bands for mutual support and protection, where did all the little nuclear families who populate this theory come from?

It never seems to strike people as oddly convenient that the somewhat anomalous relationship practices of 21st century Americans just happen to be the most natural ones. And so the general appetite for evolutionary psychology just-so stories never seems to die out.