Thursday, January 31, 2013

More than a feeling

What is love? A micro-moment of positive resonance doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the popular song. But in an article in The Atlantic, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson suggests that love is exactly that:

Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.

Rather, it is what she calls a "micro-moment of positivity resonance." She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in "It's a Wonderful World" when he sang, "I see friends shaking hands, sayin 'how do you do?' / They're really sayin', 'I love you.'"
Fredrickson seems to be attempting to quantify love, or at least isolate its sources. Turning our most powerful emotion into 'micro-moments of positive resonance' may feel like its on the same level with explaining The Force through midi-chlorians: it robs it of its mystery. But if Dr. Fredrickson is onto something, maybe we can up our midi-chlorian count and get better at falling in love.

According to Fredrickson, these 'micro-moments of positive resonance' have biological and physiological components. She has taken the increasingly common step of running a study where she jams people into MRI machines and studies how their brains light up when exposed to stimuli. In this case she was looking for mirror neurons in the subject's brain to light up in response to a voice with which they felt a connection.

Fredrickson also invokes Oxytocin, the so-called 'trust' hormone, which has recently been fingered for everything from inducing love to marital fidelity.

And then finally Fredrickson studied the vagus nerve, a multipurpose brain center which extends nervous connections to places as diverse as the heart and the intestines. Her conclusions, which she's publishing in a book, is that love, i.e. the 'micro-moments of positive resonance', is a product of mirror neurons, Oxytocin and the all-purpose vagus nerve.

Scientifically, I think that Fredrickson is on very thin ice. Mirror neurons, first observed in the premotor cortex of macaques, have never been definitively proved to exist in humans at all. Even if they do, we don't know if they work the same way in humans as monkeys. Neuroscience has also generally found that any capability of the brain arises from complex interactions between many, many types of neurons, not a single, magical cell type. Nonetheless, this hasn't stopped mirror neurons from being called 'the DNA of psychology' and being credited with everything from creativity to empathy to the development of human language. And now, of course, love.

Then there's Oxytocin, the so-called 'relationship hormone'. Once again, this was first discovered in animals other than humans: in this case, prairie voles. It was believed to be responsible for causing the largely monogamous prairie vole bond for life with its partner. However, other studies showed that injections of Oxytocin into polyamorous cousins of the prairie vole did not make them suddenly turn monogamous.

Research on the effects of Oxytocin in humans has been similarly mixed: while it does seem to strengthen group bonding at times, this only happens when positive associations already exist; otherwise, it has the opposite effect. It has also been linked to increased intolerance towards 'outside' groups. And there is no evidence that the hormone can be responsible for turning a one-night stand into true love.

As for the vagus nerve, well, it's a fascinating and complex piece of anatomy but I've really never heard of it being associated with love before. This did not stop Fredrickson from submitting her findings on it to the Dalai Lama. For peer review, perhaps?

It seems to me that Dr. Fredrickson has based her findings on some very dubious pop science. That said, I think her underlying points about how we think about love are very much on point:

A global poll taken last Valentine's Day showed that most married people—or those with a significant other—list their romantic partner as the greatest source of happiness in their lives. According to the same poll, nearly half of all single people are looking for a romantic partner, saying that finding a special person to love would contribute greatly to their happiness.

But to Fredrickson, these numbers reveal a "worldwide collapse of imagination," as she writes in her book. "Thinking of love purely as romance or commitment that you share with one special person—as it appears most on earth do—surely limits the health and happiness you derive" from love.

Love 2.0 is, by contrast, far humbler. Fredrickson tells me, "I love the idea that it lowers the bar of love. If you don't have a Valentine, that doesn't mean that you don't have love. It puts love much more in our reach everyday regardless of our relationship status."

Lonely people who are looking for love are making a mistake if they are sitting around and waiting for love in the form of the "love myth" to take hold of them. If they instead sought out love in little moments of connection that we all experience many times a day, perhaps their loneliness would begin to subside.
I think this is true: we've lost sight of the value of small, personal connections between many people in the face of myths about all-encompassing romantic love. People struggling with loneliness don't necessarily need to find 'the one'. They need to start making connections with 'the many', the communities of people around them.

This is an important truth, and it's too bad Dr. Fredrickson has to base her arguments for it on a foundation of junk science.

Mirror neurons may not exist in humans. Oxytocin intake can be dangerous in pregnant females and downright toxic to males. Stimulation of the vagus nerve can lower your heart rate and make you short of breath.

If you're looking to have your breath taken away on Valentine's day, you may be looking in the wrong place. It's not about neurons, hormones or chemicals. It is about reaching out to your fellow human beings.

1 comment:

bojojoti said...

Good post. Saint Paul would add that love fulfills God's law. We'd certainly solve many world problems if love were more the focus rather than fame, position, or fortune.