November 10, 2010
When scientists — arguably the most logical of humans — try to make sense of love, interesting things are bound to happen. As Albert Einstein concluded: “Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.” (No one’s ruled out inertia, entropy, or nuclear fusion.) Traditionally, of course — metaphorically or otherwise — we trace the origin of love to our hearts. Thankfully, though, Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue suggests that our head has something to do with it, too — and not just when it’s over our heels.
In the new study “The Neuroimaging of Love,” Ortigue reveals that “12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression.” Basically, “falling in love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects intellectual areas of the brain.” Apparently, when it comes to love, we can go from zero to sixty in 1/5th of a second — meaning that euphoria can enter our system as quickly, if not faster, than a controlled substance.
So falling in love is like being on cocaine. It happens real fast, you’re on this crazy high — and then you come down. Interestingly enough, cocaine was once an ingredient in Coca Cola. Coca Cola was first introduced as a patent medicine “for all that ails you.” Since cocaine isn’t legal and has long been removed from Coca Cola, maybe all we need is love?
Dr. Sean Mackey, chair of the pain management division of Stanford University, might agree. Writing recently in Time, Alice Park explores Mackey’s research into to what degree love might “influence how we experience physical pain.” Mackey discovered that when people who reported being in the first stages of “new and passionate love” were shown pictures of their various pumpkins and pookies, they could withstand greater amounts of pain — even more so than when occupied by mental tests or when shown photos of equally attractive friends.
While I am all for love as a potential wonder-drug, one of my questions is: why only romantic love? Would throwing a different kind of love — say parent/child — into the pain equation garner the same results? Isn’t that love just as mind-altering? Nope, turns out. Well, not in the same way.
Ortigue’s study found that the reason parent-child love would likely not have the same effects on pain is that different parts of the brain are stimulated by different kinds of love: “Passionate love is sparked by the reward part of the brain, and also associative cognitive brain areas that have higher-order cognitive functions, such as body image.”
Parent-child love wouldn’t reduce pain physically because it doesn’t stimulate the reward center. However, that’s not to say that a parent wouldn’t be able to endure more pain should their child be in danger. In essence, Mackey’s study is strengthened by Ortigue’s assertion that the brain releases chemicals akin to cocaine to stimulate romantic love, because like cocaine, love works back and forth with the brain as it heightens certain things and dulls others. Love engages “our very deep, old and primitive reptilian system that involves basic needs, wants, and cravings.”
Since romantic love allows us to withstand more pain, perhaps it is the reason humans survive. While the end of love can hurt, to the point of making people lovesick, the euphoria of being in love keeps us coming back, much like cocaine keeps an addict coming back — all ensuring that we continue the species. From an evolutionary standpoint, the emergence of romantic love in humans may be all about survival of the fittest – rewarding us for the formation of potentially strong alliances with our mates and, as shown by Mackey allowing us to withstand greater amounts of pain, which from a primitive standpoint would have been useful in a fight with that mastodon.
Be thankful. Biology is looking out for us in more ways than one.
January 4, 2010
Via Boing Boing:
GirlTalk Radio is a podcast made by girls who love math and science. Hosted by 11-to-16 year olds, the program features interviews with diverse cadre of science-minded women—from stem cell researchers and computer scientists, to marine biologists and computational linguists. Even a CIA intelligence officer. Worth a listen for geek girls of all ages.
April 6, 2009
From today’s New York Times:
Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.
Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.
The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.
So far, the research has been done only on animals. [Elephants: FAIL.] But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
One might think that that “Brooklyn” lab is actually BG’s — that this one would be THE killer breakup app. What, indeed, if you could neuralize that night, that “loser,” those five years too many?
Yeah, well, you wouldn’t want to. No, really. Every breakup/hookup/screw-up: like it, or LIKElike it, or not, it’s part of who you are. (Don’t make me say “learning experience.”) Each one helps you say to yourself, “Okay, not that.” Each one gives you an opp to look back and say “See how far I’ve come.” Each one reminds you, looking back, that you survived: that all this love business is the messy stuff of life, not the sloppy kiss of death. So no neuralyzers being developed over here, sorry. We put our R&D dollars toward the Affirmatron.
April 2, 2009
Speed dating may seem like a waste of (tiny microcosms of) time, but some researchers at Indiana University recently found a way to put it to good use: By having subjects (male and female) watch tapes of numerous speed-dating interactions (male-female), they measured which gender seems to be more adept at picking up on flirting cues, both come-hither and get-outta-here.
Turns out, it’s a draw.
“… [M]en and women were shown to be equally good at gauging men’s interest,” says the study, “and equally bad at judging women’s interest.”
So apparently it’s hard to get when women are playing hard-to-get. Score one for feminine mystique!
“‘The hardest-to-read women were being misperceived at a much higher rate than the hardest-to-read men. Those women were being flirtatious, but it turned out they weren’t interested at all,’ said lead author Skyler Place, a doctoral student in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences working with cognitive science Professor Peter Todd. ‘Nobody could really read what these deceptive females were doing, including other women.’ ” (“These deceptive females?” Sounds either coldly anthro-scientific, or the opposite, like he’s gonna go on to say, “YOU made me do this study, Linda, YOU did!”)
Here’s something else I’m having a hard time getting. Behold this little nugget:
“Researchers expected women to have a leg up in judging romantic interest, because theoretically they have more to lose from a bad relationship [ital mine], but no such edge was found.”
An icky amount of such cavalier sexism has been coursing through the “scientific” studies I’ve read of late. This one’s so broad I’m not even sure which presumptions are being referred to: That women don’t have time on their side? That they often wind up financially lesser-off post-divorce? That they’re all just, y’know, thisclose to tripping over the line into full-blown nutso?
If you’re as worked up as me, unwind by playing your own Meta Match Game.
March 26, 2009
Anybody else game to test this out on their next blind (so to speak!) date? From a study covered in the London Telegraph:
“The longer a man’s gaze rests on a woman when they meet for the first time, the more interested he is. If it lasts just four seconds, he may not be all that impressed. But if it breaks the 8.2 second barrier, he could already be in love they say.”
Women were found to stare for equal lengths of time whether they were attracted to the guy or not. Why? Because, the article explains (“explains”), “… women are more wary of attracting unwanted attention because of the risks of unwanted pregnancy and single parenthood.”
[Charlie Brown confused headshake] Wuzzuh?
And I thought it was just me who mind-jumped ahead too fast on the first date.
March 12, 2009
In an act of ultimate woo-pitching, your male luv-uh seduces you on the beach, on a hot summer night, under a full moon… pinch me, I’m dreaming? No, but you are about to get pinched in all the wrong places by a horseshoe crab.
That’s just one of the nifty, species-specific mating rituals outlined in this food-for-thought post over on Wired’s science blog. Collectively, they sound an awful lot like, well, dudes.
“Some of these rituals are designed to convey reproductive fitness. Others are meant to trick reluctant mates into a one-night stand. And — hermaphrodites withstanding — it’s nearly always the males who try to catch the attention of ladies,” says the piece.
The animals listed engage in acts of attraction that sound either dizzyingly romantic (oh, to find an elephant of one’s own!), oddly gender-flippy (it’s the male grouse that shakes his caboose to catch the gal’s eye) or eerily reminiscent of the worst Saturday-night meat market ever (skull-butting, peen jousting).
Or would you rather be a fish?
February 19, 2009
A group of scientists at Lafayette University recently found that kissing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also noted higher levels of the emotional-bonding chemical oxytocin in the guys they studied — but curiously, not in the girls, whose oxytocin levels pretty much stayed the same.
The study’s subjects were male and female, college-age students from the school — no same-sex couples were studied! Erm! — who were asked to make out in the student health center for 15 minutes. Memo to Lafayette admissions: put that in the catalog!
While I am tickled to find that there’s a Latin-derived “-ology” for the study of kissing — philematology — I wish it didn’t sound quite so much like “phelgmatology.” And to an extent, I’m happy to remain a layman rather than overanalyzing the art of kissing. For example, I don’t think I need to know that “men prefer ‘sloppy’ kisses, in which chemicals including testosterone can be passed onto the women in saliva. Testosterone increases the sex drives in both males and females.” Dropping that bit of science on me has, I think, actually ruined my next makeout session.
Via VeryShortList: A group of geneticists at Penn State have found that male mice that are made to cohabitate with female mice exhibit “manlier” physiological traits — such as higher testosterone levels and longer periods of fertility — than mice made to fly solo.
The study’s abstract states that the findings “have significant implications for the maintenance of male fertility in wildlife, livestock and human populations.”
Who do ya think is rejoicing in this bit of knowledge more: pregnancy-fixated women or certified lifetime bachelors?
January 14, 2009
If you are not yet sick of science stories that tell us Love is strictly a chemical reaction, Monday’s New York Times had an interesting piece on some research being reported in the new issue of Nature.
When a female prairie vole’s brain is artificially infused with oxytocin, a hormone that produces some of the same neural rewards as nicotine and cocaine, she’ll quickly become attached to the nearest male. A related hormone, vasopressin, creates urges for bonding and nesting when it is injected in male voles (or naturally activated by sex). After Dr. Young found that male voles with a genetically limited vasopressin response were less likely to find mates, Swedish researchers reported that men with a similar genetic tendency were less likely to get married.
Writer John Tierney is much more interested in using the research to develop an anti-love vaccine that could inoculate people against quickie marriages and other ill-advised pairings. Is there something he’s not telling us?
September 3, 2008
Next Page »
From the “Crap Science” files over at Jezebel:
On the heels of The Re-education of the Female, which suggests [in 2008] that women keep their men by doing chores in sexy outfits, comes a study implying that male fidelity may have more to do with genetics than wifely subservience. According to scientists at the Karolinska Institute (sounds like a ballet studio, actually a Swedish medical school), two in five men carry a gene variant that makes them less likely to commit to women.
Men with the gene, which, as the Washington Post notes, regulates the hormone vasopressin, are more likely to live with women without marrying them; if they are married, these men are more likely to fight with their spouses and consider divorce. Their female partners (the study only looked at heterosexual couples) also “reported lower levels of satisfaction, affection, cohesion and consensus in the relationship” than partners of men without the variant.
…This study looks at first glance like another great way to reduce human relationships to biological imperatives. As if comparisons between men and male animals weren’t popular enough, the Post cites an earlier study in which the same gene variant was found in mountain voles, who are apparently more caddish than their prairie cousins…
The most interesting research, however, has yet to be done. The Institute plans to study whether oxytocin, another hormone, affects women’s ability to commit. This study might take some of the annoying stereotypical sting out of sex research. Thus far, much of it has been about why men “can’t commit,” with the assumption that women want them to. Corresponding research into women’s predispositions might underscore the fact that we’re not all sad little lady voles who sit around waiting for our man vole to come home. Nor are we slaves to biology. Some men and some women want to commit, and some don’t, and our goal should be to avoid a mismatch of the two, not to pore over our genes for predictors of our happiness.