Brain Pickings

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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A Visual Alphabet-Dictionary of Unusual Words

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A visual A-Z of the hidden treasures of language.

As a lover of language and words, especially obscure and endangered words, I was instantly besotted with Project Twins’ visual interpretations of unusual words, originally exhibited at the MadArt Gallery Dublin during DesignWeek 2011.

Acersecomic

A person whose hair has never been cut.

Biblioclasm

The practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, books or other written material and media.

Cacodemonomania

The pathological belief that one is inhabited by an evil spirit.

Dactylion

An anatomical landmark located at the tip of the middle finger.

Enantiodromia

The changing of something into its opposite.

Fanfaronade

Swaggering; empty boasting; blustering manner or behavior; ostentatious display.

Gorgonize

To have a paralyzing or mesmerizing effect on: Stupefy or petrify

Hamartia

The character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall.

Infandous

Unspeakable or too odious to be expressed or mentioned.

Jettatura

The casting of an evil eye.

Ktenology

The science of putting people to death.

Leptosome

A person with a slender, thin, or frail body.

Montivagant

Wandering over hills and mountains.

Noegenesis

Production of knowledge.

Ostentiferous

Bringing omens or unnatural or supernatural manifestations.

Pogonotrophy

The act of cultivating, or growing and grooming, a mustache, beard, sideburns or other facial hair.

Quockerwodger

A rare nineteenth-century word for a wooden toy which briefly became a political insult.

Recumbentibus

A knockout punch, either verbal or physical.

Scripturient

Possessing a violent desire to write.

Tarantism

A disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to dance.

Ultracrepidarian

A person who gives opinions and advice on matters outside of one's knowledge.

Vernalagnia

A romantic mood brought on by Spring.

Welter

A confused mass; a jumble; turmoil or confusion.

Xenization

The act of traveling as a stranger.

Yonderly

Mentally or emotionally distant; absent-minded.

Zugzwang

A position in which any decision or move will result in problems.

Some of the designs are available as prints in the Project Twins shop.

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The Great Bridge: An Essential History of the Brooklyn Bridge

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What wire-walkers and medical mysteries have to do with the world’s deepest pit and the secret female engineer behind an architectural icon.

On the afternoon of August 24, 1876, an announcement was made in the Brooklyn Eagle that a man would attempt to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. The next day, thousands of people lined the river on the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts to see the feat. Built over the past six years, the massive anchors of the bridge were the tallest structures in the city, twin cathedrals on the river. Between them was a negative space of huge potential, the largest suspension bridge in the world. For the moment, however, the bridge was nothing but a single string cable, impossibly thin and hard to see, twisting in the wind.

At half past one, E.F. Farrington, the sixty-year-old Master Mechanic of the massive architectural project, stepped onto a boatswain’s chair — essentially a two-foot plank of wood — and swung out over the river. Below, a traffic-jam of sailboats and ferries had stopped to watch as a man seemingly flew above them, reaching the other side in seven minutes to a huge shout from the Brooklyn side. The first crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge had been achieved.

The Great Bridge (public library), David McCullough’s phenomenal 1972 history of a bridge that has been an icon of the city for nearly 130 years, has been reissued this year for its 40th anniversary. The story that McCullough tells is a thrilling tale of engineering genius, bureaucratic hang-ups, medical breakthroughs, and an architectural ambition that transformed New York forever.

On August 24, 1876, E.F. Farrington, Master Mechanic of the Brooklyn Bridge, made the first crossing across the East River on a wire.

Like the vision of a man zip-lining across the East River, The Great Bridge tells many little-known facts about the bridge, including the daily toil of “caisson disease” — better known today as the bends — on the bridge workers. It was an illness that stupefied medical professionals and struck down the engineer of the bridge itself, Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project after the death of his father, J.A. Roebling.

After the single-wire crossing, bridge-workers, many of whom were former sailors, would start to attach the suspension cables. (Brooklyn Museum)

There were two phases of work for those who toiled on the bridge: the six-year project to dig out the bases for the two towers, and the stringing of the cables, which took nearly as long. The first workers were expected to work in shifts of five or six hours down in the “caisson,” the massive pit that anchored the structure to the earth. There was no deeper pit in the world, and the men who went down into it would travel through several airlocks.

Inside the caisson everything wore an unreal, weird appearance….With the flaming lights, the deep shadows, the confusing noise of hammers, drills, and chains, the half-naked forms flitting about, with here and there a Sisyphus rolling his stone, one might, if of a poetic temperament, have a realizing sense of Dante’s inferno.

More than two hundred workers would descend into the caisson each day, and newspaper reporters would relate their stories of the slimy, hot, airless working conditions.

As the depth increased, so did the danger — and so did the pay. A man working in the pit could make in hours what a regular laborer might make in a month. But soon men started to come out of the hole dizzy and bleeding, and a doctor was called to investigate the illness that seemed to strike down everyone who went down below. The doctor then realized that the sickness only struck men who scrambled to get out of the hellish hole, rather than those who gradually came out over the course of an hour or so. It was one of the first diagnoses of the bends in human history.

A view of Brooklyn from the bridge, c. 1876 (Brooklyn Museum)

One of those to become very sick from the bends was chief engineer Washington Roebling, who had taken over the project when his father died. Halfway through the construction, Roebling became confined to his home in Brooklyn Heights, where he could watch the progress from a second-floor window. His wife, Emily, became the public face of the project. She would meet with his engineers, suppliers, and business partners in the parlor of their house, learning complex matters of physics about the strength of cable and the catenary curves necessary for a successful suspension.

After chief engineer became sick due to the bends while working on the Bridge, Emily Roebling would take over many of her husband's duties, teaching herself the essentials of physics, architecture, and engineering. (Brooklyn Museum)

Emily Roebling would also travel to the site to walk the temporary footbridge that became a dangerous but popular attraction for New Yorkers: “Safe for only 25 men at one time,” a sign read at the entrance. “Do not walk close together nor run, jump, or trot. Break step!”

The temporary footbridge that allowed workers to access the cable was also a popular tourist attraction. (Nationaal Archief)

When the bridge opened in 1883, it was called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and rightly so. No project had combined such expertise in excavation, suspension, and architectural aesthetics in one of the busiest metropolises in the world. Much like New York Diaries and The Greatest Grid, The Great Bridge is a reminder that any enduring symbol is constructed from a constellation of stories.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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