The Reductiveness of Science
A July 30th L.A. Times piece that held the dominant spot in this Sunday’s Providence Journal Lifebeat section is a fine specimen of science’s reductive power in the hand of a secularist:
The forces of attraction are in many ways mysterious, but scientists know certain things. Studies have shown that women prefer men with symmetrical faces and that men like a certain waist-to-hip ratio in their mates. One study even found that women, when they sniffed men’s T-shirts, were attracted to certain kinds of body odors.
That initial spark can flash and fade. Or it can become a flame and then a fire, a rush of exhilaration, yearning, hunger and sense of complete union that scientists know as passionate love.
Key to this state of seeing a person as a soul mate instead of a one-night stand is the limbic system, nestled deep within the brain between the neocortex (the region responsible for reason and intellect) and the reptilian brain (responsible for primitive instincts). Altered levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin — neurotransmitters also associated with arousal — wield their influence.
But passionate love is something far stronger than that first sizzle of chemistry. “It’s a drive to win life’s greatest prize, the right mating partner,” Fisher says. It is also, she adds, an addiction.
People in the early throes of passionate love, she says, can think of little else. They describe sleeplessness, loss of appetite, feelings of euphoria, and they’re willing to take exceptional risks for the loved one.
Brain areas governing reward, craving, obsession, recklessness and habit all play their part in the trickery.
Love, you see, in all of its stages is traceable through various chemical changes and is, ostensibly, the predictable consequence of a collection of complex factors, from appearance to personal history to the circumstances under which a couple meets. Writer Susan Brink refers to it as a “trick” multiple times. One wonders what scientists could have discovered that would make Brink think love sincere or “real.”
It’s only natural to feel as if some of the magic has disappeared from something when it has become understood. Natural, but incorrect and deleterious. The emotion is just as real whether or not we know what the brain is doing to create it, just as understanding the physics of a sunrise makes it no less magnificent.
The trickery comes in when mankind presumes to manipulate that which has been defined, and it is the reduction of life’s magic to mere mechanics that begets the moral error that manipulation is acceptable. Consider:
Experiments in other mammals add to the human chemical findings. Female prairie voles, for example, develop a distinct preference for a specific male after mating, and the preference is associated with a 50% increase in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.
But when the monogamous vole is injected with a dopamine antagonist, blocking the activity of the chemical, she’ll readily dump her partner for another.
The imaginable applications of a love antidote, or a love enhancer, range from the cute to the tyrannical. Looking at the love of your life and pondering the chemical “trick” of your emotions is socially corrosive, but it’s nowhere near as frightening as considering the use toward which such chemical tricks would have been put by 1984‘s Big Brother.