Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Science vs. Romance
Hey, look, another semi-consistent update! (Zany.)
Conan's been over for about three days now, and in the least, they're showing one last week of reruns from last fall before the show goes off the air entirely. (I've got it on in the background at the moment - after the current commercial break, they'll be reairing one of those last Triumph the Insult Comic Dog remotes. The one at Hofstra University, making fun of people at the spin room following the second presidential debate.) As such, I haven't gone into withdrawal yet. (The key term naturally being yet.)
February's winding down already, with the month coming to an end this upcoming weekend. This has been a productive month here at Spiral Reverie, as with this being my 10th post this month, this is easily the most active the blog's ever been. (And I'm hoping to better maintain this level of productivity after how much I slowed down my blogging in the latter half of 2008.) That Conan liveblog managed to bring in an astonishing number of hits for this dusty little corner of the internet (Hey there, Cone Zone fanatics finding this blog through Google!), and I'm quite happy about that too.
Anyway, I'm not sure what all I'll be writing about in the future yet - I've got some rough writing cobbled together for a series of posts on the video game industry, its current issues, and problematic attitudes online that I plan to target at normal people who might be interested in learning about the state of things on that front. (Considering how much the market has exploded in recent years thanks to the Wii and DS appealing to far more people than the usual stereotypical gaming crowd, and the severe lack of writing for people who aren't obsessive 'in the know' gamers arguing back and forth over brandnames and genres.) And I'm hoping to come up with some more interesting subjects for posts between those so that I don't just spend a month or so alienating people with video game rambling, either. (Though you've all been warned thoroughly, I am a huge nerd. Of course, the same may be true of most people who spend their time blogging or reading blogs.)
Getting back to the main subject of this post, I promised last week that I'd be doing another love and science post, as I wrote a couple of those last year. With February, the love month (Because we needed one of those to balance out the other 11 hate months. There's a precise science to that, too.), coming to a close, it's time to bring my general posts on the subject to an end for now. (Of course, who knows what else I'll blog about later this year?)
While one of those posts last year focused on the science of kissing, this year? Some new follow-up scientific findings have been announced on the matter. The very act of kissing itself apparently releases chemicals that ease stress hormones in both sexes, and encourages bonding in men. (Though not as much in women, interestingly.) So yes, kissing apparently does indeed relieve stress. Science!
According to findings in a Lafayette College study (Led by dean of faculty and neuroscience professor Wendy Hill), saliva chemical compatibility can be a means of assessing a potential mate. (To slip back into the all-important scientific/National Geographic vernacular here.) In the study, pairs of heterosexual college students kissed for 15 minutes while listening to music, during which time they saw chemical shifts in their oxytocin (Which affects pair bonding) and cortisol (Which is related to stress) levels. How did they study this? Through blood and saliva samples, of course. Science!
Cortisol levels dropped in both sexes, while oxytocin levels rose in the men and dropped in the women. A test group only held hands and experienced similar chemical changes. That seems to make it apparent that physical affection between a pair of lovers is good for reducing stress in general.
Beyond the obvious from the empirical evidence to the conclusions about stress reduction from this experiment, there's still much to be learned about what the body and brain go through chemically in love and affection. This particular experiment was conducted in a student health center, and Hill intends to repeat it in a "more romantic" setting. Lovely!
Hill announced these findings at a session on the Science of Kissing, alongside Helen Fisher of Rutgers University (Whose 2008 findings I wrote about in that last post on the science of snogging. The was also on the Colbert Report earlier tonight.) and Donald Lateiner of Ohio Wesleyan University. Fisher noted that 90+% of human societies practice kissing, and she breaks it down to three components: sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. These components can be effectively viewed as phases: you're driven to assess a variety of partners by your sex drive, then you become focused on an individual through romantic love, and ultimately through attachment you're able to tolerate that person for long enough to raise a child. (And then comes phase 4: Divorce!)
Getting more into the chemicals of kissing, Fisher found that men see kissing as a prelude to copulation. (That little thing we call foreplay.) She also noted that we apparently really like "sloppy" kisses as so to pass on chemicals including testosterone to women through our saliva. In turn, testosterone bolsters the male and female sex drive. (This space reserved for a highly inappropriate chemical date rape joke.)
Fisher also pointed out that an enormous part of your brain becomes active when kissing, and that if you kiss the right person, romantic love can last a long time. (There's a little pat on the back for those of you already completely disillusioned after reading this post.)
At the end of the session, it was naturally included that the science of kissing - philematology - is under-researched. (As such, you can no doubt look forward to more blog posts on new findings on the subject in the future. You'll learn so much that you'll begin to find the very concept of kissing reprehensible! Just remember, brain chemistry is love!)
Feeling disheartened enough yet? Don't worry, there's more! At the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a team of scientists have successfully isolated the brain's "love circuit." This particular region of the brain has been named the ventral tegmental area. (Or VTA, for short. Very Tasty Area, indeed.)
So, how exactly does love work, you ask? (Yes, that's exactly what you're asking as you put your hands over your ears, shut your eyes, and start singing gibberish as loudly as you can to block out what I'm sharing with you here.) Functionally? Love works just like a drug addiction. The love you have for your significant other and the love an addict has for sweet, sweet crack aren't too different, as Helen Fisher pointed out. The VTA manufactures dopamine and disperses it in different brain regions, which people get hooked on pretty easily. (And quite naturally, of course.) Like any drug, love has its highs and lows - times when you feel on top of the world, and times when you want to crawl into a hole and die.
To put a more positive spin on things, though, the addiction that comes with love seems biologically ingrained as so to keep us together - to effectively add a sense of increased value to love itself. Further connections between love and addiction have been made in studies of the brokenhearted as well. The heartbroken deal with cravings not at all unlike a drug addict in withdrawal.
The most recent brain scans in the study were focused on couples who'd been married for roughly 20 years and still acted like a lovey-dovey couple of newlyweds. (Who, of course, are an absolute minority in married couples, considering the ever-increasing numbers who fall out of love and end up being deadened inside by the whole experience of matrimony.) In both the men and women in these couples, two more areas of the brain reacted in addition to the VTA: the ventral pallidum (Which is associated with attachment and stress-decreasing hormones) and raphe nucleus (Which pumps out serotonin, creating a "sense of calm"). These particular areas essentially create a general low-level feeling of happiness, like all is right with the world. (Basically, your brain is lying to you.)
Naturally, there's some controversy around this research. University of Hawaii psychology professor Elaine Hatfield cautions that we shouldn't take too much from these studies on their own, and that they should be meshed with the work of traditional psychologists. But potentially, its findings could be used to produce brain hormone-based pills to help troubled relationships in addition to therapy. ("Don't worry, honey! If we take these happy pills, you'll eventually feel okay with all those times I slept with your best friend! By the way she's coming over tonight so if you don't mind scramming and pretending you know nothing, that's be awesome.") Potentially, this research could lead to advances in understanding and treating social-interaction conditions like autism. Fisher herself is researching the brain chemistry of attraction between individuals, using her findings as of far at Chemistry.com, a popular online dating/matchmaking site for which she serves as the scientific adviser.
In facing limitations in researching living humans, brain researchers have turned to the prairie vole, as it's one of the 5% of mammals that basically bond for life. As such, they're an ideal research subject in looking to figure out what makes this lifelong bond possible. In females, the key bonding hormone was found to be oxytocin (Which is also produced in both voles and humans during childbirth). When scientists blocked the female prairie voles' oxytocin receptors, they stopped bonding.
Male prairie voles' key bonding hormone is vasopressin. In putting vasopressin receptors into brains of meadow voles - a cousin of the prairie voles that doesn't bond like the prairie voles do, instead breeding with a variety of partners - and found that they began to bond like prairie voles then. A genetic variation was found in a few non-monogamous prairie voles as well, which they also found in some human males. The men with that variation ranked lower on an emotional bonding scale, had more marital problems, and their wives were more concerned with their attachment. (As reported by Hasse Walum, a biology researcher in Sweden.)
According to Larry Young of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, romantic love can theoretically be simulated with chemicals, now that scientists have found the key chemicals and means of stimulating their production. But if you really want a damaged relationship to recover or to get that "spark" back, you need to engage in behavior that will naturally stimulate the release of these hormones and emotions. (Such as hugging, kissing, and intimate contact, as found in that earlier article.)
Yes, this was the first long one in a while. But hey, it was interesting, wasn't it? (Yes, yes it was.) The science of love is an interesting topic, but if you can, don't let science's way of draining love of its romance get you down too much. Remember, as musician Jenny Lewis has put well, we're not robots in a grid.