Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 JULY, 2012

Jesse Bering on the Adaptive Value and Neurochemistry of Heartbreak

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The science of why it’s possible to actually die of a broken heart.

This must be the season for fascinating books on the psychology and anthropology of sexuality, from the history of judging desire to the origins of sex. Now, in Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human (public library), research psychologist Jesse Bering — whom you might recall as the author of the excellent The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, and who is a frequent contributor to Scientific American and Slate — examines the kaleidoscope of sexual taboos through the lens of science and psychology, from the evolution of body fluids to the politics of polyamory to the neurochemistry of heartbreak.

In one particularly fascinating chapter, highlighting studies that reveal a correlation between homophobia and repressed homosexual desire, Bering zooms in on the leaps of logic that permeate much of the rhetoric on homosexuality and the naturalistic fallacies that attempt to define notions of “normalcy”:

[I]t’s rather strange that we look for moral guidance about human sexuality from the rest of the animal kingdom, a logical fallacy in which what is ‘natural’ — such as homosexual behavior in other species — is regarded as ‘acceptable.’ It’s as if the fact that bonobos, desert toads, and emus have occasional same-sex liaisons has a moral bearing on gay rights in human beings. Even if we were the lone queer species in this godless galaxy, even if it were entirely a ‘choice’ between two consenting adults, why would that make it more reasonable to discriminate against people in homosexual relationships?

Beyond these philosophical problems with seeking out social prescriptions from a nature that is completely mute as to what we should do with our penises and vaginas, however, there’s an even bigger hurdle to taking polyamory chic beyond the tabloids, talk shows, and Internet forums and into standard bedroom practice. And that is simply the fact that we’ve evolved to empathize with other people’s suffering, including the suffering of the people we’d betray by putting our affable genitals to their evolved promiscuous use.

Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists’ otherwise practical polyamory.

Bering goes on to offer a kind of scientific anatomy of heartbreak, citing the familiar work of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher:

[T]here are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is so often tied to one partner’s infidelities. During the ‘protest’ stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection, ‘abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. They phone, e-mail, and write letters, pleading, accusing, and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.’

At the neurobiological level, the protest stage is characterized by unusually heightened, even frantic activity of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, which has the effect of pronounced alertness similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers. This impassioned protest stage — if it proves unsuccessful in reestablishing the romantic relationship — slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as ‘resignation/despair,’ in which the rejected party gives up all hope of ever getting back together. ‘Drugged by sorrow,’ writes Fisher, ‘most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV.’ At the level of the brain, overtaxed dopamine-making cells begin sputtering out, causing lethargy and depression. And in the saddest cases, this depression is linked to heart attacks or strokes, so people can, quite literally, die of a broken heart. So we may not be ‘naturally monogamous’ as a species, but neither are we naturally polygamous.

[ ... ]

[O]ne of the more fascinating things about the resignation/despair stage is the possibility that it actually serves an adaptive function that may help to salvage the doomed relationship, especially for an empathetic species such as our own…. [H]eartbreak is not easily experienced at either end, and when your actions have produced such a sad and lamentable reaction in another person, when you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess — in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim — I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.

Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human is excellent in its entirety, woven of Bering’s rare tapestry of scientific rigor and a powerful, articulate social point of view.

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02 JULY, 2012

The Science of Waiting and the Art of Delay

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Exploring the intersection of time and decision-making to shine a light on what it means to be human.

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living,” Voltaire famously lamented. This tension between anticipation and impatience, indeed, seems central to the human condition. In Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (public library), former investment banker turned writer and law educator Frank Partnoy shines a spotlight on it by bringing together four previously examined grand questions — what is time, how we decide, why we procrastinate, and what it means to be human — through hundreds of scientific studies and interviews with prominent thinkers across psychology, behavioral economics, philosophy, social science, anthropology, and more. What emerges is an important, if counterintuitive, perspective on delay in a culture obsessed with efficiency, speediness, and productivity that bleeds into the hasty and the rash.

Partnoy observes:

For centuries, leading thinkers …. have told us not to jump to firm conclusions about the unknown. Yet today we jump faster and more frequently to firm conclusions. We like to believe there is wisdom in our snap decisions, and sometimes there is. But true wisdom and judgment come from understanding our limitations when it comes to thinking about the future. This is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes. Asking questions about timing is crucial, even if we cannot arrive at an answer as specific as ’42.’

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Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more?

Our ability to think about delay is a central part of the human condition. It is a gift, a tool we can use to examine our lives. Life might be a race against time, but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires pause. The converse of Socrates’s famous admonition is that the examined life just might be worth living.

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29 JUNE, 2012

Creative Legend George Lois on Ideas as the Product of Discovery, Not Creation

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How to cultivate the mental medley that sparks the alchemy of ideas.

In celebrating the greatest living graphic designer’s 83rd birthday on Tuesday, I somehow forgot that Milton Glaser shares his birthday with another creative world icon, two years his junior — legendary designer, author, and contrarian George Lois, often regarded as the greatest art director of all time and called, much to his disgruntlement, “the original Mad Man.” To celebrate his 81st birthday, here’s a wonderful short film by On Creativity, in which Lois reflects on the combinatorial nature of creativity and echoes insights we’ve already heard from other great creators — the power of cultivating a personal microculture, the idea that to invent is to choose, the importance of “being-in-the-world-ness,” the notion that to create is to discover and connect rather than “invent” out of thin air.

I don’t think I create anything. I’m really serious — I discover the ideas.

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If you understand how to think… If you have a background of graphic art, and you are a sports fan, and you’re literate, and you’re interested in politics, and you love opera, and ballet’s not bad either, and if you understand people… and you understand language, and you understand that product, and you understand the competitive products… and you put that all together in about ten minutes — the idea’s there.

Lois’s new book, Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!): How To Unleash Your Creative Potential by America’s Master Communicator, George Lois, came out earlier this year and is precisely the kind of no-bullshit, feather-ruffling gem you’d expect from the beloved curmudgeon.

Swiss-Miss

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