Monday, February 14, 2011


Today, Valentine's Day, I read an essay about love as a product of brain biochemistry. Rich in references to neurotransmitters, functional MRIs, the chordate nucleus and ventral tegmental area, the piece pointed out that love is literally in the head. The author, a medical colleague, states that if we knew love's physiology, then maybe we could make it occur more often. Maybe we could stop bad relationships, and make good ones last.

This is a great destination to aim at, but how we get there is a crucial matter. The brain physiology approach has the pharmaceutical industry slobbering onto its shirt. In fact, I wonder whether most brain research is done for any reason other than to design behavioral manipulation. Let's see: if we tweak the serotonin-dopamine ratio in the prefrontal cortex, then the love factor increases thirty-five percent…

In the world of philosophy, this perspective is called "reductionism." It posits that we're essentially biochemical gadgets. Forty-some years ago my physiology professor began a lecture by jumping into the air and spitting on the blackboard. It got our attention. Wiping his chin, he turned to us and said, "Jumping and spitting. That's all we can do." That is, human activity is the effort of muscles and glands, period. He met any challenge to that (e.g., "What about humor and contemplation and fear and love?") with, "You can't prove to me that even exists." In that view, what's real is what can be measured.

As the Brits say, bollocks. Reductionism shrinks us from the magical, quirky human beings we know we are down to sacks of enzymes. Even reductionists love their spouses and know when a joke is funny. If they want to believe they're impelled solely by their chemicals, that's their privilege. Sure, physicochemical manipulation of the brain can influence experience dramatically; consider the effects of surgery or LSD. But if we're to increase love in our life on an ongoing basis, we'll do it through imagination and choice, and that will drive our chemistry. A few decades ago, psychologist Robert Ornstein published a book, The Psychology of Consciousness, in which he stated he'd sought to explain the chemical basis of consciousness. Instead, to his surprise, he wrote about the consciousness basis of brain chemistry.

May we enjoy this Valentine's Day with more than our heads.

1 comment:

  1. Thus explains why Americans keep taking prozac to find happiness, while Egyptians take to the streets shouting, "I feel free! I feel free!!!!"---All those ineffables, intrinsics, you refer to are felt not only by each of us individually, but also by people part of a relationship, a family, a town, a state, a country, and the planet.

    We accept the "collective madness," unconsciously agreeing to heighten our personal trials and joys over the larger civic consciousness. But occasionally the collective becomes unity, and the madness of exclusive individuality is cast out by a rapid-fire simultaneous transformation of consciousness called "revolution."

    It's much more than brain chemicals, and even if a company would market it, buying it in pill form would never have the same effect as profound, personal, collective action as we have just witnessed in Egypt, and now, across the Arab world...rocking us all, on some level. That's a Valentine I can believe in!