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I remember the first time I looked at cell through a microscope. After dripping the solution onto the thin glass plate, I eagerly zoomed in, adjusted the focus, and waited for a little critter to come into view. I waited for a while, but nothing came. Finally, I zoomed out a little, and searched for tiny specs. I found some, adjusted the glass plate, and zoomed in again. I stared in awe at the tiny moving parts. However, I found myself zooming out every once in a while to figure out which part of the cell I was spying. Only after several iterations of zooming in and zooming out, was I ready to complete the lab assignment. That is, I not only needed to see what was happening at a microscopic level, but also at the macro-level. Without context, perceptions are empty; and vice versa.
The hope to understand everything about everything by discovering the tiniest, most fundamental pieces of the world ultimately leads to disappointment: the reductionist's suffering. In The contemporary scene of neuromania, where knowing the brain is the cure to all intellectual ailments, Kayt Sukel's story about the emerging neuroscience of love - told through an exploration of her own "dirty mind" -- displays a refreshing realization of this practical - and arguably theoretical - reality. With personal anecdote from her friends, herself, and prairie voles, she brings to life the terminologically dense world of brain structures, neuropeptides, and epigenetics in a way that any beginner, who spends sometime with a brain map and Kayt's book, can become a star-studded neuroscientist - at least at dinner parties.
The first five chapters of the book present a clear introduction to the basics of neuroscience. Kayt's accomplishment in these sections is not so much her ability to explain the different regions and functions, but to couch descriptions of them in an epigenetic context. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of research bridging the gap between the nature/nurture debate, which pits those who believe our lives are genetically determined against others who believe environment is more important. While we may be able to predict red hair or blue eyes with some accuracy using only genetic components, we have been markedly unsuccessful at predicting more complex social and behavioral traits. The epigeneticist neither reduces life to genetics nor environment, but instead explores how the environment affects the likelihood that genetic predispositions may become manifest. My genetic code may have all the trappings of epilepsy, but without the right environmental conditions, I may never have an epileptic seizure. Zooming all the way into our genetic structure is not enough; we need to explore the context and environment in which that genetic structure encodes the various proteins, which program the cells, which make up our bodies.
Understanding this interplay between substance and environment is crucial when making inferences using neuroscience. Just like our genetic code consists of many little pieces, our brains consist of many tiny neurons (which have even tinier moving parts). These neurons conduct electrical current to each other by making connections using chemical molecules called neurotransmitters. There are a variety of neurotransmitters; some increase the likelihood that current will be conducted (excitors) and others which decrease the likelihood (inhibitors). This mix, or soup of neurotransmitters is affected by the environment: sensory experience; the quality of our food, air, and water; our relationships; etc. As Kate describes, the neuroscientific understanding of love has quite a grasp on the kinds of neurotransmitters associated with the various experiences of romantic love, orgasms (she reports on her experience masteurbating in a functional magnetic resonance machine, which measures blood flow in the brain), monogamy, spiritual love of Jesus, and a mother's devotion to her infant. However, despite this catalogue of neural correlation, Kayt reports that researchers overwhelmingly hold a conservative view of their ability to explain the experience and function of love and sex in these terms.
As direct research on human sex and love is in its infancy, Kayt focuses on the study of prairie voles, which are one of the few organisms which also form monogamous relationships with one another, or what researchers call "pair bonding". These bonds are so tight that in cases where two female voles vie for the same male, the loser will die, "we could not tell the cause of death, because in most cases there was no obvious signs of fighting. However, we could predict which of the females would die because the one who would live was always sitting between her and the male, apparently guarding the male."(p.220). In general, researchers could isolate the particular genetic and neural components which result in these kinds of behavior in the voles because the voles neural system is so simple; compared at least to the human brain. As such, this information merely serves as a cue for what to look for in the human brain. While some humans demonstrate this kind of deep devotion to one another, or to Jesus in the case of nuns, the behavior is not generalizable to all human love.
Kayt touches on many hot button topics regarding sexuality. She explores neural correlates of homosexuality, cheating, male/female brains, addiction, religious experience, attractiveness, and hatred. In all cases, she reports that researchers have learned that different experiences are closely associated with either a particular neurotransmitter or brain region. However, to reiterate her thesis, explaining these phenomena solely in terms of the genetic components has proven to be elusive. While there is some hope that better machinery/technology can reveal the specific functions associated the varieties of human love, sex, and relationships, Kayt, no matter how much she may want to know, is not waiting for it; especially when it comes to manipulating love with some pill or treatment, "though we may wish it were so, there are simply no easy answers when it comes to love. There is no clever play book for navigating love's messier situations; there are no promises to be revealed by five-step magazine stories or brain chemistry supplements. The brain is too complicated for that."(p.244) I am inclined to agree with her that unless an explanation can produce practical results, such as a love potion or deterministic genetic engineering, then its value as an explanation should be questioned. While practical implementation may not be sufficient condition for truth (Greco-Roman sailors did fine navigating a "flat earth"), it may very well be a necessary one, at least in so far as accepting that the brain is ultimately in control of our love lives.
© 2012 Roger Hunt
Roger Hunt, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis