Brain love and tear drops: the science of emotion

I came across Brent Hoff’s mini-documentary The Love Competition yesterday. Hoff, in conjunction with a bunch of Stanford University neuroscientists, ran and filmed a contest to see who could [neurochemically] love the most. It’s beautifully filmed, and Hoff approaches each individual that is interviewed with a gentle curiosity.

So how does one measure love? Aside from the general arm-span-width measure (“I love you this much!“), one might think that there’s not much concrete to go by. Hoff and his science buddies beg to differ. The love experiment placed contestants in an fMRI machine while they focused on their “love” emotion (and the object of their love). After the scanning was complete, the scientists measured activity levels in the brain regions most commonly associated with love.

But, despite the friendly and somewhat heartwarming nature of this doco, I can’t help feeling a bit dismayed by the whole notion that love is located in the brain. For one, love is abstract. Reducing it down to three brain pathways seems incredibly erroneous. I feel like trying to measure love with an fMRI machine is akin to attempting to understanding the ocean through examining some grains of sand on the beach- misguided.

Second, love is complex and diverse. What’s fantastic about the group of people selected for The Love Competition is that they all have extremely different notions of love, and focus on a vast array of love “objects” when they are in the machine. I particularly like the woman who decides to focus on love as internal and generated through chakra meditation- how interesting!

Third, I’m not sure how neuroscientists actually get to a point where they go, “yep, these are the love pathways“. The process of thinking love/ measuring thinking love/ ascertaining love areas/ getting someone else to think love/ measuring them against love areas- well, the whole thing seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What gets missed in this process?

Lastly, locating social concepts such as love in the brain can never end well. What if someone was put in the machine that could never produce any “love” activity- would we label them a sociopath? Does the woman crying at the end love her husband of 50 years less than he loves her?

Like Ron Burgundy reminds us, “You’re just a woman with a small brain. With a brain a third the size of ours. It’s science“.

It’s interesting to contrast The Love Competition with Hoff’s earlier work, The Crying Competition (don’t ask me why all these emotions have to involve competing, but whatever). In this, four men struggle so hard to produce a single teardrop that they quit after half an hour. When a woman sits down at the end, it takes just 20 seconds to deliver the salty goods. I think it’s easy to walk away from this video with a strong contention that men don’t [or can’t] cry. Certainly biological elements may factor into this (fluctuating levels of hormones certainly seem to make me tear up at some stages on the calendar). But what else might be going on?

Well, listening to the commentary from the men in the video almost seems to reveal an uncertainty about how to “get in touch” with emotions that lead to tears. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is a product of socialisation- a deep internalisation of the norm that men do not cry. But if we leave The Crying Competition video promulgating it as “proof” that men don’t cry, we perpetuate the very sentiment. 

I think that at the end of the day, what the Crying and Love competitions reveal, is that human expression about feelings is far more interesting than any scientific “measures” of emotion. One man in Crying even states that he is almost crying watching himself unable to cry- perhaps mourning the abstraction between masculinity and tears that his body has incorporated. Similarly, the disparate views expressed in Love reveal that there is a plethora of human experiences that we might call love.

The fact that the brain scans couldn’t adequately reflect these different experiences of “love” as relevant brain activity, shows us that such a neurochemical interpretation of love is flawed in the first place.

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One thought on “Brain love and tear drops: the science of emotion

  1. Pingback: Romantic Love: the Physiochemical Construct by Neurotransmitter Activity | Triple Helix Online

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