How do I love thee? Let me show you my brain scan

by Rob Horning

13 February 2007


The run up to Valentine’s day is a good time for journalists to file stories like this one, from today’s WSJ. The headline: “Is It Love or Mental Illness? They’re Closer Than You Think.” This is not exactly breaking news; people been describing love in terms of madness probably since the time of Sappho. But given a technological sheen, this information can seem reinvigorated, scientifically proven rather than the idle speculation of poets. The article, by WSJ’s health writer Tara Parker-Pope, describes recent research into the neurochemistry of love, using brain scans to measure activity in its various parts while test subjects were shown pictures of people they love versus people they felt neutral about. “Everything that happens with romantic love has a chemical basis,” explains Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and the lead researcher. (Love and chemistry? Who would have thought?) This raised methodological questions for me: How do the researchers know that the subjects are really in love with the people whose pictures they provide? Isn’t there a kind of confirmation bias when you’ve provided a stack of photos, one of which you have said is special? Of course you are going to react to that one. It would be more interesting if there were unexpected brain activity in relation to one of the others. Also, this invoked for me an ultimate Valentine’s Day activity—the day is already a show trial of romantic feelings through a variety of commercial rituals, so why not pay for the privilege of proving your love for your partner by having your brains scanned while you look at each other. Then your MRIs could be compared to other lovers to prove any number of things: that your love for each other is stronger that others’ loves, or that one partner loves better than another, that you are still in love at all. Perhaps a business could be run in which couples prove their fidelty by having their love tested the way you might have your cholesterol measured. The brain scan could be a sophisticated lie detector; one could show a spouse pictures of various acquaintances and see just how they feel about them. The opportunities for exploiting jealous paranoia seem limitless, so there are many potential Valentine’s Day marketing opportunities here. (Also, is there anything brain scans can’t be alleged to show? A recent Washington Post article discussed how “brain scans and hormone fluctuations in our bloodstream show that our brains are designed to know where we fit into the pecking order, and we’re uncomfortable when we’re not among equals”—not only can they provide scientific basis for romance but also for class difference.)

Parker-Pope points out that “the dramatic changes evident on the brain scans may help explain bizarre behavior that is often associated with love. It can also help explain why marital problems are such a serious health worry. Studies show that people in troubled relationships are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.” Then she suggests the fix:

Studies show that trying something new with a spouse can go a long way toward reigniting love. In one study, couples were assigned a weekly activity they both found new and exciting—such as sailing or taking an art class. Another group did pleasant but familiar activities, such as dinner with friends. Based on answers to relationship tests, the couples doing new things showed far more improvement in the quality of their marriage after 10 weeks than couples who did the same things every week. The lesson is that sharing new experiences with your spouse appears to trigger changes in the brain that mimic the early days of being in love.
“We know that novelty and new experiences engage the dopamine system, and when it’s associated with your partner it creates a link with the partner,” says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at New York’s Stony Brook University who conducted the study. “It creates a dramatic increase in the sense of passion and romance.’‘

So this Valentine’s Day, don’t just go out to dinner. Go snorkeling or something.

Other societies, according to Lust in Translation, a book about infidelity in various cultures that Brad Plumer blogged about a few days ago, may have a different, more-straightforward solution to the novelty problem: new lovers, which spouses keep private and unobtrusive. Only in America, the book implies (at least to Plumer), is infidelty considered proof that a relationship is failing: “Now, obviously, anecdotal reporting isn’t the same thing as doing extensive surveys and the like, but it was interesting that the people in France whom Druckerman interviews were mostly dumbfounded by the notion that couples should never have any secrets between them. That largely seems to be an American idea. (French people also don’t appear to think that an affair is always a symptom of some horrific flaw in a relationship.) But then, looking at the statistics, French couples aren’t any more prone to infidelity than American couples. It’s just dealt with differently.”

Americans may view it differently because of the commercial incentives to make them do so: Plumer notes how the book reveals that “an entire industry has sprouted up to help couples deal with the post-traumatic stress of an affair”—stress created perhaps because of the way the stakes of infidelty are already raised. American counselors and Christian organizations prescribe radical truth-telling as a cure: How radical? “Many therapists believe that a wife is entitled to ask her husband for the details of every text message and encounter. The rationale is that the relationship between a husband and wife should be transparent. Some couples create a detailed chronology covering the entire period of the infidelity, even if it lasted for several years. The process stops when the wife can’t take it anymore, or when she’s satisfied that she’s overturned every lie she’s ever been told.” It’s easy to see where brain scans might fit into this. What better way to ground the truth of your feelings than in science, in hard data. A brain scan could be like a pee test for recovering addicts—it could be checked to make sure a spouse isn’t harboring untoward feelings for an ex-lover. It’s a good way to reinforce the vision of marriage as sharing property, headspace included.

But aside from the relationship industry (and its manufactured holidays like Valentine’s Day), it may be that Americans register infidelity as more of a threat because other social pressures to maintain commitment are absent or weakened. I wonder whether divorce rates are lower where infidelty is regarded as less of a threat. Infidelty in such countries may be as much of an instituion as marriage, with the same sorts of humdrum instiutional hassles—it may not seem all that exciting and thus may not seem to warrant an elaborate confessional. Perhaps some political science theory can shed some light here. Albert Hirschman, in Exit, Voice and Loyalty, notes the existence of “lazy monopolies” that welcome competition as a means for doing away with the troublesomeness of voice (intra-institutional complaining). Marriages in cultures where infidelity is tolerated may work similarly; that other subordinate relations can be conducted drains away the impetus to make major alterations to the dominant relation, which can lumber along quiescently, in “comfortable mediocrity” (to use Hirschman’s epithet for ghetto grocers).  Infidelity allows relationships “the freedom to deteriorate” without stirring up all that much stress.

Moreover, in order for couples to communicate like they must in order to maintain a relationship, the barriers for exit must be sufficiently strong. Hirschman explains that “specific institutional barriers to exit can often be justified on the ground that they serve to stimulate voice in deteriorating, yet recuperable organizations which would be prematurely destroyed through free exit.” He’s mainly talking about patrons of poltical organizations and business firms, but he remarks also that this logic rationalizes otherwise arbitrary procedural difficulties in divorce proceedings. With these barriers eroding, infidelity may seem more and more like outright exit, leading Americans to view it as a desperate spur for using an extreme version of what Hirschman calls “the voice option”—radical truth-telling.

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