Brain Pickings

This Is Your Brain on Love


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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CitID: A (Type)face for Every City in the World


Typefacing Tegucicalpa, or what hometown homages have to do with postmodernism.

We recently raved about GOOD Magazine‘s neighborhood flags project and these 50 brilliant Japanese town logos. But what if every city in every country in the world could recruit its design talent to create typographic homages to the city? That’s exactly what CitID aims to do — and they’ve already gotten submissions from over 150 cities spanning all — yes, all — continents.

CitID is a ambitious project aiming to gain global consciousness by giving a (type)face to every city worldwide; big or small, rich or poor, famous or infamous, well-known or unheard-of.”

From tongue-twisters like Tegucicalpa to cross-cultural icons like New York, the project is as much a creative endeavor as it is an educational exercise. The ultimate aim is to harness creatives’ love for their cities and create a global visual anthology of city identities.

Budapest // Design by: Áron Jancsó

Berlin // Design by: Axel Raidt

Portland // Design by: Santiago Uceda

London // Design by: Rob Gonzalez & Jonathan Quainton

Sofia // Design by: Ivan Hristov

Breda // Design by: Nikki Smits

Raleigh // Design by: Bryan Flynn

Our favorite has to be this postmodern entry by designer Dustin Kemper:

Philadelphia // Design by: Dustin Kemper

So go ahead and represent your city by submitting a design — or sweet-talking your favorite local designer into doing it.

via [TMB]

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Bike Culture: A Roundup


How to slam-dunk rubbish, or what abandoned bikes have to do with the economy of war.

By now you likely know that we’re devoted to bikes, to riding them as well as admiring them in all their variety. Today we’d like to steer you to three waypoints in the growing bike culture trend—at least we hope it’s both growing and a trend.


David Byrne’s New York City bike racks (remember those?) double as an editorial in iron—each rack is designed to comment on the character of the neighborhood, its businesses and denizens.

We all know that lots of adults ride bikes in Copenhagen—about 30% of that city’s population regularly commutes by bike. That compares to about .07% of New Yorkers. So it makes sense that the city planners would think of all the little improvements aimed at making the cyclist comfortable, such as this footrest.

David Hembrow documents life on a bike in a country perhaps most deeply associated with practical riding in everyday life, The Netherlands. In his blog, “A view from the cycle path,” David recently showed how civil and green the Dutch can be, all without stepping off their bike — rubbish receptacles for coasting and disposing.

For the big bicycle picture, for advancing its place at the center of US politics, there’s the Bike Caucus, run by congressman Earl Blumenthal who always begins his speeches on behalf of the caucus with a dedication to all those Americans stuck in traffic on the way to the gym to ride a stationary bike.

To chart not only the increase in bike-friendly infrastructure, but also to chart your next ride, use the new Google Maps directions for cyclists. Map it, cycle it, and then give Google your feedback—all ways to do your own two-wheeler activism.


Joe Schumacher is a NYC-based photographer who walks a lot and takes pictures of things he finds. His blog, what about the plastic animals?, captures the off-beat and pedestrian, but we’d like to direct you to his haunting and beautiful photos of abandoned bicycles of Gotham.

Those who don’t abandon their bikes can also evoke a striking scene. Perhaps a cousin of steampunk, the Bicycle Tweed movement is rolling through cities across the U.S. Here’s the site dedicated to San Francisans astride their velos and attired in their distinctive and antique wool.

Art and commerce come coasting together at Bertelli Bici in New York City. The site’s photography is simple and gorgeous and these bikes, built from a combination of old and new parts, achieve a kind of sculptural beauty.


We all know about the Critical Mass movement spreading around the world. But devoted cyclists have a nice set of alternatives to express their dreams of making the world a better place. One organization we’ve long admired is Bikes Not Bombs in Boston. It’s an organization that stitches together community, education and employment of the under served, and bicycle culture as an alternative to cars, the oil economy, and war.

And what could be less threatening than a kid on a bike looking for a high five? Well, not so much if that kid happens to be a SCUL pilot steering a ship called Angry Candy and offering a high five from about six or seven feet up, roughly the position of a pilot on a typical SCUL ship. SCUL (Subversive Choppers Urban Legion) is a Massachusetts-based “anti-elite band of pilots testing out experimental ships, exploring the Greater Boston Star systems and occasionally other galaxies” from their “subspace communication broadcast headquarters.”

Finally, we’ve got to give a shout out to our local bike culture faves, the volunteers at Bikerowave. Lots of cities have them, but this LA neighborhood tool library and DIY bike repair hangout has a great vibe and lots of knowledgeable and friendly volunteers.

Andrew Lynch is a refugee from the academy now working in advertising. While he sometimes misses writing heady sentences including words like “teleological”, he’s enjoying his stint decoding the more varied and messy signs and symbols of pop culture, consumer trends, and brand stories.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

5 (More) Places to Buy (and Sell) Affordable Art


How to get excited about art without letting your wallet get depressed.

UPDATE: We’ve launched our very own art portal in partnership with Society6, a curated collection of prints and other goodies by our favorite independent artists — check it out.

A few months ago, we spotlighted six places to buy affordable art. Thanks to a great response and numerous reader requests for additions to the list, we’re now back with five more excellent sources of sticker-shockless art.


Print Society is a platform for artists and galleries to sell art in a transparent framework and at an affordable price. The site acts a an aggregator of sorts, showcasing artwork and linking to other vendors — Etsy, 20×200 and more — where that artist sells his or her work.

Among the highlights is a meticulously curated Editor’s Picks collection. Prices range from $4 to $10,000, and Print Society charges neither artists nor galleries to sell.


Relative newcomer PrintCollection offers new historic prints and photographs each day. You can order museum-quality reproductions of the works for anywhere between $24.99 and $259.99, depending on the size of the print.

Bonus points for the fantastic collection of vintage WPA posters — you know how much we love the WPA and its design legacy.

via Swiss Miss


Since 2005, The Beholder has been showing and selling the work of emerging and mid-career artists across the U.S., Canada and Europe. The online gallery allows artists to sell their own work without taking any commission from them, and patrons can sponsor an artist directly.

Works span painting, drawing and photography, and range from $10 to $8,000.


Circuit Gallery offers contemporary limited-edition photographs, digital artwork and print-based works on paper. By offering works in larger editions, the gallery essentially inverts the traditional art world model of small, prohibitively expensive editions, pushing its mission of making contemporary art more accessible by making it more affordable.

Artwork is always sold in 500-edition runs and comes in two fixed prices: $30 for a 10×8 print and $60 for 14×11.


From high quality, signed prints to original one-off works, Eyestorm publishes and sells limited-edition contemporary art and photography from significant artists and emerging talent alike.

The site also features Eyestorm Trade, a marketplace for previously owned art that is currently sold out on Eyestorm, allowing art owners to sell art at a premium.

You can nab some original art for your home for as little as £50 (that’s roughly $72) or go all-out with an investment-minded purchase upwards of £25,000.

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