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Philosophers, theologians, artists, and boy bands have waxed poetic about the nature of love for centuries. But what does the brain have to say about the way we carry our hearts? In the wake of a divorce, science writer and single mother Kayt Sukel made herself a guinea pig in the labs of some unusual love experts to find out.
In each chapter of this edgy romp through the romantic brain, Sukel looks at a different aspect of love above the belt. What in your brain makes you love someone--or simply lust after them? (And is there really a difference?) Why do good girls like bad boys? Is monogamy practical? How thin is that line between love and hate? Do mothers have a stronger bond with their children than their fathers do? How do our childhood experiences affect our emotional control? Should you be taking an oxytocin supplement to improve your luck in love? Who is most at risk for love addiction? In her search for truth, Sukel also has an fMRI during orgasm, ponders a cure for heartbreak, and samples a pheromone spray called Boarmate.
As science allows us a more focused examination on the intricate dance between the brain and our environments, we can use it to shed new light on humanity's oldest question: What is love and why does it torture, delight, and transform us so?
Fiercely honest and wonderfully funny, Sukel can offer no simple solutions for the curveballs love throws our way. But after reading this gimlet-eyed look at love, sex, and the brain, you'll never look at romance the same way again.
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(Theirs and Mine)
In 1994 a scientist named Sue Carter submitted a grant application to study a hormone called oxytocin (not to be confused with the narcotic Oxycontin, aka hillbilly heroin) in a small rodent called the prairie vole.
A prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) looks a lot like your garden-variety mouse, but scruffier and with a shorter tail. Happily burrowing under gardens and meadows in a large stretch of central North America, these small rodents might completely escape our notice except for one special trait: they are monogamous.
Socially monogamous, that is. Unlike most other rodents--or most other mammals, for that matter--prairie voles form lifelong pair-bonds, or lasting social and sexual relationships with a single member of the opposite sex. Both males and females are also directly involved with the parenting of offspring. Because of the rarity of such habits in the animal kingdom, many animal behaviorists have become exceptionally interested in the prairie vole. One such researcher was Carter.
A professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Carter hypothesized that oxytocin, which is linked to childbirth and breastfeeding, could increase social attachment. She had already conducted research to support the idea and hoped that this grant would allow her to continue studying the hormone and its relationship to social behaviors in the prairie vole. In her application she did not mention love, marriage, or even humans. Somehow the grant review committee decided she was studying the little four-letter-word that begins with an l--love, that is--which was considered a serious no-no in the hard science climate of the day.
"I was trying to get federal grant funding to continue my work, and suddenly I was accused of studying love," she said when I visited her lab in Chicago. Petite, white-haired, and a little bohemian in style, Carter somehow managed the feat of being both incredibly welcoming and intellectually intimidating at the same time. "Honestly, it was a shock to me. I would not have used the word love--I never used the word love. I didn't think about the work in terms of love. I was simply talking about a preference of one animal for another--not some human construct that seemed to have little to do with what we were actually studying."
Carter told me she was unsure of how to respond to the review. She conferred with Kerstin UvnÄs-Moberg, a fellow scientist also interested in oxytocin who was working at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute. Could it be that their work was related to something as messy and indefinable as love? Might there be a neurobiological basis for the future study of love? Looking at newly published research by various labs concerning oxytocin, social attachment, and pair-bonding in prairie voles and other mammal species, the answer seemed to be yes. Carter and UvnÄs-Moberg thought it was time to stop ducking the topic and admit that their work did have implications for human behavior.
"It seemed like the time to really try to articulate and explain the idea that social bonds were critical to human love," Carter said. While sex was, is, and will be of the utmost importance to propagating our species, Carter and UvnÄs-Moberg were convinced that love needed to be articulated in the context not only of genetic propagation but also of survival--specifically, the ways social bonds can help people thrive in the face of stress and other complexities of life on a daily basis. Perhaps our brains promote social...
Dirty MindsBy: Kayt Sukel