Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘TED’

11 JUNE, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Love

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Why love is not an emotion and how obsessive thinking begets romantic joy.

Love is a complicated beast. And despite the ownership with which centuries of literature and art and music have claimed romance, there’s actually quite a bit of science of in it. Love, in fact, is as much a product of the heart as it is of the brain — a combination of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions.

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talk Dr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also suppress obsessive thinking, which is a very central component of romantic love.” ~ Helen Fisher

Dr. Fisher offers three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems:

  • Lust — driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification
  • Attraction — driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual
  • Attachment — driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner

She goes on to point out that serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also inhibit other evolutionary adaptive mechanisms for mate selection, such as orgasm.

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.” ~ Helen Fisher

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.” ~ Helen Fisher

To be sure, Fisher is careful to point out that she is not discouraging serotonin-enhancing medication for severely depressed patients who are a threat to their own lives. But she does point to a cost-benefit ratio that skews in disfavor of love in all but the most severe of cases — the few cases in which the choice is between love and life itself.

I’m going to say it again: we are not recommending that patients who are seriously psychologically ill refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. What we’re trying to say is that these medications affect the threshold of other biologic mechanisms and at times can jeopardize unconscious evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection, for romantic love, and for attachment.” ~ Helen Fisher

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives. Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?

For more fascinating insight on the subject, we highly recommend two of Fisher’s books: Anatomy of Love and Why We Love.

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22 APRIL, 2010

Earth Day the TED Way

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Oceans, omnivores, and what babies have to do with design manifestos.

It’s Earth Day, so what better time to spotlight some of the smartest, most compelling thinking in sustainability from the past few years, and what better place for these ideas to manifest themselves than the TED stage? Today, we’re curating our five favorite sustainability-related TED talks of the past five years — from eye-opening revelations to ideological landmarks.

CHRIS JORDAN

We’re longtime fans of photographic artist Chris Jordan, whose work captures otherwise alienating and thus meaningless numbers and statistics in incredibly powerful and emotionally impactful collages. His first TED talk is compelling introduction to his extraordinary work and the vision behind it.

Jordan’s most recent work focuses specifically on marine sustainability, which is a nice segue to…

SYLVIA EARLE

Winner of the 2009 TED Prize, legendary ocean researcher Sylvia Earle reveals a gripping look at what we’ve lost in the last 50 years and why that matters.

Last week, Earle’s TED Prize Wish came to life in the form of Mission Blue Voyage, the world’s first seaborne conference aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, focusing exclusively on water sustainability through a speaker lineup featuring the world’s most renowned ocean experts — marine scientists, deep sea explorers, technology innovators, policy makers, business leaders, environmentalists, activists and artists.

Many of the Mission Blue talks have been made available in the past week — we highly recommend all of them.

JANINE BENYUS

A few months ago, we raved about AskNature, a new biomimicry portal harnessing the power of this discipline as a potent cross-pollinator of design, engineering and science. This TED talk by founder Janine Benyus makes a strong and bold case for what biomimicry can do and where it is going.

Be sure to also watch Benyus’s first TED talk, if only to trace the incredible evolution of this sub-science over the past three years as more and more companies and inventors are embracing biomimicry as a real-world design solution and efficiency booster.

WILLIAM MCDONOUGH

The notion of cradle-to-cradle design may be staple of every industrial designer’s manifesto today, but it wasn’t always a must-have catchphrase. Five years ago, it was more likely to raise an eyebrow than a fist. It was eco-minded architect and designer William McDonough that first coined the phrase and began . His 2005 TED talk laid the groundwork for what has become one of the most essential cultural conversations of our time.

For me, design is the first signal of human intentions. So what are our intentions? ~ William McDonough

Today, this sort of holistic thinking about the design process is encouragingly widespread — something chronicled in another excellent piece of advocacy on the subject, Emily Pilloton’s Design Revolution: 100 Product That Empower People.

MICHAEL POLLAN

In early 2007, when the relationship between food and sustainability was as evident to mainstream America as that between particle energy and the velocity of light was to early humans, Michael Pollan began a conversation that was to shape our common understanding of health — in the broadest sense, human and environmental — for years to come. A few months before his Omnivore’s Dilemma became a national bestseller, Pollan gave a groundbreaking TED talk that launched the issue into the public conversation. Though the talk’s central arguments are common sense to anyone even marginally socially attuned today, it’s still worth watching if only for its status as a historical landmark of cultural dialogue, one that made an entire generation never look at food the same way again.

Pollan’s name has since become synonymous with sustainable agriculture, unleashing a slew of books, documentaries and other social commentary on the subject, including the excellent PBS series The Botany of Desire, starring Pollan himself.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375869832/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0375869832&adid=02YXM5MD2VFTBCC5WMM6&Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 APRIL, 2010

Cartograms: Making a Point with Distorted Maps

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Why space is relative and how popular media are making entire continents disappear.

We love maps. And we love data visualization. Naturally, we love cartograms — maps of countries and areas distorted to reflect non-geographic information about them. These representations provide a succinct and visually digestible way to comprehend complex data about the world’s hisotrical, social, political, economic and health reality, among other issues of interest. Today, we look at three particularly eye-opening cartograms that put today’s geopolitical and socioeconomic reality in perspective.

EXTERNAL DEBT

As the world continues to try to make sense of the full context and implications of the financial crisis, University of Sheffield postgrad Ben Henning took a look at the real dimension of the world’s external debt. The map reflects the ratio of debt to GDP, based on 2010 estimates by the World Bank and CIA.

In case you were wondering — or looking for an economically stable place to move to — that green patch amidst the European redness is Luxembourg, doing even better than the stereotypical financial forerunner in yellow right below, Switzerland.

NEWS

There’s no question that news media shape our perception of the world. But, in just four minutes, head of Public Radio International Alisa Miller shows just how distorted the news’ portrayal of the world can be.

Miller’s eye-opening talk embodies the core of why we believe citizen journalism will be a potent game-changer in news, the real “fair and balanced” way to do things.

POPULATION

Today’s moderately educated adult has no qualms about the world’s overpopulation problem. But this issue is as much one of scale as it is of distribution. Earth’s bloated population, combined with its uneven and disproportionate distribution, makes for a number of social, economic and environmental hazards. This cartogram presents a map of the world, with land areas weighted for population size, making all these disbalances unmissably prominent.

Seeing overcrowded India and China explode while Russia and Canada, with their vast, barren and unpopulated Arctic landscapes, shrink does bring the notion of “public space” to life by visualizing, effectively and powerfully, the relationship between “space” and “the public.”

BONUS

The Daily Mail, a source of otherwise questionable reliability and taste level, has a surprisingly excellent series of cartograms that paint an issue-weighted portrait of the world.

Though three years old, the maps are incredibly eye-opening, reflecting everyting from alcohol consumption to HIV prevalence to toy exports.

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13 APRIL, 2010

Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant Sets Victorian Children’s Poetry to Song

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Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote the year’s most moving album.

The cross-pollination of disciplines, which is the seedbed of some of humanity’s greatest creative achievements, hardly gets more bewitching than the intersection of literature and music. (An intersection I hold particularly dear.) That’s what Natalie Merchant accomplishes with great elegance and genius in Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten Victorian children’s poetry, a decade in the making.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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