Monday, May 18, 2009

That Which Is Is All There Is

I love learning. Every new quantum of information adds a new dimension of depth to my understanding of the world. Sometimes a new idea is so powerful I feel it physically. A chain of connections, revelations and insight crackles through my body. The sensation is quite literally orgasmic.

I hope you'll all forgive me for taking a moment to argue against a scarecrow that hasn't made it to Oz yet. But there exists this attitude, here and there, that science is something cold or passionless. That it robs the romance from all the beautiful things in the world.
I think, taking my first paragraph in context, you will see why this view quite stupefies me.

When I stand deep in the woods, and inhale the rich scents of leaf mold, and listen to the raucous peaceful business of life going on all around me, I am filled with a visceral pleasure; a strong sense of belonging and peace.
Tell me, why would that feeling be aught but strengthened by the understanding of my place in this ecosystem?
I know (for certain values of know) the physics, chemistry, and biology of the trees and the sun and the wind. I know about the creatures that surround me, and I know about the millions of years that put them there, and what the niche they've adapted to is. I even understand the neuro-biology that makes me so happy to be there.

I ask again: if the rainbow is beautiful, why are the quantum physics of refraction anything but awe-inspiring?

And there's always more to learn. I barely knew anything last year. Now, with increasing education, I am exposed to whole new vistas, the contours of which describe in elegant geometry exactly how little I know. It is an ever-full cup from which I could never tire of drinking.

And so I find another object of inquiry: we've all experienced the exultant heights and bitter valleys of love. Ah, amore, that most elusive and poignant emotion of the human cornucopia.

It doesn't surprise me that some would balk at turning the piercing gaze of science to the state of love. It feels as an invasion of our deepest privacy. There's nothing more intensely personal than love.
It's also a little distressing to think that our decisions and motivations are the product of more than some kind of "pure" thought. It makes us feel less like perfectly rational, ideal game theory actors.
Furthermore, it's as if a bit of selfness is stolen away. Is love still so important when it is "just" some chemical and neurological interactions?
And I can only respond, both to my own quivering heart, and to the doubts of others, that nothing has changed: knowledge can only bring us the why. It will change nothing about what is. You are no less in love for understanding why that state exists in your mind.

"To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right." —Confucius

So hopefully you can see why I was so excited at an interesting coincidence of articles recently.
I'd been reading about relationships. This is a representative sample. Think about their impact on my life. What kind of relationship I wanted, why I wanted that, and how I should go about it. One thing that ran through my mind was why sex, a physical act, should be so important to my emotional well-being. Whether that held true for other boys, or for women, and to what degree.
I'm also reading a book, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. It's an older book, but still has a lot of interesting insight into the human condition, as a big ol' ape with a uniquely ginormous frontal lobe jury-rigged to a matryoshka of more primitive ganglia stacked on each other.
And finally, this.
I can't say that strongly enough. THIS.

Now, before I get too excited, it is my duty to warn you that this is just conjecture. They emphasis in the article that this is preliminary research. Data collection. They're only now forming testable hypotheses.
But oh my stars it's incredible.
Just half-way through I felt struck by the sensation I described at the beginning here. Arched back, rushing sound in my ears and all.
I hope I'm not overselling this, but it's as if a handful of disparate bits of my life have finally caught fast and gelled into an intricate net of understanding that touches every corner of my existence.

One particular caveat I want to make note of before pressing on: the article makes a lot of reference to specific chemicals and their effects on our emotions. While many of these are pretty unambiguously proven, I advise a healthy dose of caution to any offer of a single hormone or neuro-transmitter as the sole source of any specific behavior or emotion.
My primary source for this caution is the serotonin hypothesis (essentially the theory that serotonin is the primary mood regulation chemical), which was, in essence, conjured whole-clothe from the rectums of anti-depressant pharmaceutical companies.

Forgive me as I reiterate some of the article while talking about the connections it's formed for me.

The article describes a group using a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine to scan the brains of people in various states of love. This machine analyses in three dimensions, in real time, blood flow inside the brain. Subjects are asked to look at a screen with certain pictures, or to think of certain things. Synapses involved in that kind of thinking fire more in greater density, and more blood is drawn to that section. The fMRI measures this blood flow, hopefully telling us what parts of the brain are involved in what kind of thinking. There are some criticisms here. That researchers are finding patterns that don't exist in what is essentially noise. But cross-referenced with other neuro-biological data, and with a large enough sample group, it seems to promise some stunning insights into the functioning of the human mind.

In high school I had a conjecture. I knew at the time it was flawed, and since then have always wondered what it was missing.
"Is love more than just a really strong friendship, plus attraction?"
And two highly respected doctors Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown have started work on a hypothesis that says "yes".
(PS: isn't it wonderful that there are more women in science every day? I'll have to write on that sometime soon.)

What was I missing? Perhaps it's so obvious that I feel silly even saying it.
That's it.

"But Robert, isn't that a tautology, 'romance is romance'?" I'll pretend you're asking.
Well, you see, perhaps we've been putting the cart before the horse.
We think perhaps we desire to settle down with that one special lady or one special guy (or a couple special someones?) because we're in love. But truly, we're in love because we want to settle down.
I'll try and explain.
When you're in love, your sex drive fires up. I don't think that needs much more explanation. So does the attachment system, which is basically the same stuff that makes you happy to be with friends, to talk with them and make them happy.
(It's even a little related to the instincts that make you love and want to protect both your body, and your possessions. Which says something interesting about materialism: our brain literally treats our possessions as similar to the way we treat parts of our body. Just, you know, without direct nervous system connections.)
Thirdly, this instinct, the missing branch. The two researchers have labeled a network of parts of the brain the "romance system." This system is the one that really makes what we call love. The heady, literally-cocaine-like rush when you see or hear or smell the recipient of your ardent desire. It is responsible for the "pair bonding" instinct. The interesting thing is that while ours is slightly extended, it's basically the exact same system we see in almost anywhere we see pair-bonding in the mammal family tree.

Which is where The Naked Ape comes in. Old as it is, it still walks through the logical progression of how pair-bonding became a fixture of human life. Through biology. The shared ancestor of chimps and humans was probably pretty similar to today's chimp. Humans are the descendants of the offshoot that left Eden the forest, and the other branch had no need to change. In the forest, these apes roamed their territory in small groups, eating and resting wherever they felt like it. Males would always be around to respond to any challenges for mating rights.
But on the Serengeti, this didn't work anymore. From our ape heritage, women needed to take care of children. And to get enough food to survive, men had to leave on multi-day hunting excursions. Cooperation in a hunting was mandatory. Although we eventually learned endurance, like wolves, especially early on, the only way to get prey was to work together. Competition for mating rights had no more place in the new world. Especially not when they started picking up elk thighbones, and gaining the power to kill with a blow. Another structure that died out were alpha males and harems. Even "lesser" men had to have a franchise in the future of the group, or there wasn't enough reason for them to cooperate. Pair-bonding, or love, gave them this franchise. A guarentee of passing on his genes. This is why the popular use of Darwinian always pisses me off. Humanity is one of the most cooperative species on the planet, and that's what makes us the most powerful species on the planet.
Furthermore, any male ape that would only share meat with his own children had a distinct genetic advantage. Genes that promoted either more or less altruistic behavior were at a disadvantage.
Thus, the ancient mammal instinct of pair-bonding was pulled from inactive duty by mutation and kept in service by selection.
Another part of why I love science so is the way that as better and more complete theories develop, everything begins to connect together. Ends meet and the structure as a whole is reinforced.
Pair-bonding was also heavily connected to sex. An the article says, they've only studied men so far. And furthermore, even a specific subset of them. But so far we've shown a lot of connections, ones that aren't present in many other animals, between our "romance system" and our sexual one. I really can't wait until Fisher and Brown have studied how women are wired. But everything in this article, discerned from the mental shape of love, is supported by the observational, anthropological and zoological data encoded in the forty year old book, the Naked Ape. And that one can definitely tell you: breaking down the mating habits of our proto-chimp ancestors took some unique solutions. And I'm sure you'll all agree with me that what they stumbled on, a complex cocktail of pleasure and affection chemicals released by sex, was a damn good one.

Some interesting factoids:
Semen literally contains pheromones that strengthen the romance system in women. An amusing, but groundless speculation: this could be why many guys like it when their partner swallows.
A bit of the reason we like doggie style may simply be mechanical; ie, how the friction occurs. But another part may be the "lordosis" posture. A vast majority of female mammals, to indicate that they're ready for mating, will raise their hips towards their mate, and look back over their shoulder. This apparently still jabs a poker into the most primitive, instinctual parts of our brain, branding "Iz tiem for sex now?" right down to our neurons.

Now, I keep saying pair-bonding, but that's not necessarily accurate. We apes come from a pretty hedonistic free-for-all sexual mannerism background. Pull an old behavior from your butt, clean it off, and staple it on, it's not going to completely supplant the old one. (Especially when some degree of variability is a pro-adaptive trait). While monogamy was adaptive enough, I'd imagine that polyamory would be a useful enough trait to have some biological basis in the here and now.
Of course, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for non-monogamous behavior. But I'd be really fascinated to see a study of self-identified polygamous and polyamorous individuals. There's a lot of focus on it being purely about sex, about jabbing that sexual impulse reward button. Though this is just a guess, I'd be willing to bet that in most of them, those same connections exist between the sex and romance centers.

And that's another reason people don't like science poking into the boudoir. It's challenging. If reality challenges your prejudices, what are you going to do?


theamberkey said...

Very interesting post.

Eliyahu said...

Quite the good read there, Robert.