Brain power

How do you Feel?

FuturePundit had an interesting piece yesterday, which goes back to our theoretical debate about what pills you might take to deal with your spouse having an affair. There may be one, he suggests:

What does the future hold for love? Greater knowledge of a phenomenon very often brings with it the ability to manipulate and control it. I expect the development of drugs and other treatments that cause people to fall in and out of love and to recover more easily from lost love.

Some people will choose to immunize themselves from love by using treatments that prevent the love process from developing in the first place. A person with history of heart breaks might decide that the possibility of a new love is just too painful to bear. Or someone who wants to devote their time to career might decide to innoculate themselves from the risk of romantic distractions. Still others of a more cerebral sort will decide that love is just a costly cognition distorting evolutionary vestige that they are best off without.

The ability to manipulate love medically will inevitably lead to misuse via surreptious reprogramming of the love state of others. Someone who wants to ditch their mate will be tempted to surreptitiously deliver medicine that will cause the mate to fall out of love. Or imagine the case where a suitor is rejected because the object of their love is in love with someone else. Inevitably some suitors will look for ways to surreptiously deliver a medical treatment that will cause the object of their love to fall out of love with someone else and thereby open up the possibility of forming a new love bond with them.
But why fight for love anyway? Only because you're wired too, the studies suggest -- you're almost doomed to a long, miserable slide:
Psychologists studying relationships confirm the steady decline of romantic love. Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.
Think about all those people becoming steadily less satisfied with each other. The outcomes of natural selection are cruel.
For a certain few people, however, love can last:
Brain scans show the perpetually in love as different than the masses. Those people in long term relationships who profess to still feel very excited about their partners have more intense brain activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain just like the newly fallen in love do.
Days after Mrs. Tucker's brain scan, Dr. Brown, the neuroscientist, sat in her book-lined office looking at the results. "Wow, just wow," she recalls thinking. Mrs. Tucker's brain reacted to her husband's photo with a frenzy of activity in the ventral tegmental area. "I was shocked," Dr. Brown says.

The brain scan confirmed what Mrs. Tucker said all along. But when she learned the result, she too was a bit surprised. "It's not something I expected after 11 years," she says. "But having it, it's like a gift."

The scan also showed a strong reaction in Mrs. Tucker's ventral pallidum, an area suspected from vole studies to have links with long-term bonds. Mrs. Tucker apparently enjoyed old love and new. In the months since, Dr. Brown analyzed data from four more people, including Ms. Jordan, who also showed brain activity associated with new love. The study is ongoing, and more volunteers are being sought.
Now, what all this means to FuturePundit is that you can save marriage with a pill -- in theory, you can make everyone experience the continuous love that now only a few know.

What is interesting to me, though, is how counterintuitive the findings are. I don't mean counterintuitive only to me -- that is, "not what I'd expect." I mean, counterintuitive to everyone.

For me, it seems odd that the vast majority of marriages experience a sharp drop in happiness over the first ten years. For others, love isn't what it is for me. They and I use the same word, but we don't experience the same thing at all. Yet the science bears it out.

For the others, the concept that you could continue to love someone forever was the counterintuitive part -- but again, the science bears it out. What is genuinely unimaginable for most is simple truth for some.

I can honestly say that anyone I've ever loved, I still love. That's apparently extremely unusual, which I would not have expected. By the same token, others whose brains work the normal way find that they couldn't imagine the way I feel at all. To the psychologists and neuroscientists running the study, such things are -- their words -- shocking.

The thing to remember about all this? If you say to someone, "How do you feel?" and they answer, "I am in love," you still don't know how they feel. They use the same word you do; but the word alone won't tell you. You have to see them ride the river a while to know for sure.

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