all you need is dopamine

WordPress seems to have done some UI redesign. I think I like it. My favorite part? The big “preview this post” button sitting to the right of my text box. Preview button, you are my friend. Thank you for coming out of hiding.

However, that is not why I came out of hiding today. I came to talk about love.

Maybe that is a little personal for a usability blog, but man, this is not a usability blog, this is my blog. It just happens to be a convenient place for me to geek out about usability/HCI issues, since I’m sure my friends are tired of listening to me rant about perfectly circular mice (are you kidding me? did not a single person employed by Apple sit down and actually try to use the damn thing? obviously not…and I know, mighty mouse, but that has its own stupid problems, and at least a year or two ago a couple of school computer labs still had those awful circular mice, so I still had to use them sometimes) or how excited I am to have discovered that the best firefox add-on in existence, Tab Mix Plus, has an option to make tab width fit the tab title (you can adjust the min and max width). That’s one advantage of reinstalling your OS, I suppose. It is an opportunity to go poking around and find out if new things have shown up since the last time I configured all my gadgets.

But I digress.

So. Love.

I am not a particularly romantic person, in either of the common senses of the word. Studying psychology has only made that more true. I reflect on my experience through the lens of physiological processes and abstract theories of how human mental activity is organized. I won’t hesitate to cite psychological experiments if there are some that have helped me gain perspective on a particular phenomenon. Most of my friends seem to find it an entertaining quirk, if it comes up at all. But it can be frustrating for those who want to be close to me romantically (in the amorous sense).

There I go, dancing around “love” again. The problem is, romantic love has confused me for a long time. Everyone has an opinion on it, but everyone seems to say something different. From pop culture to great poets to people who have declared their love for me, I can’t seem to find a consistent thread. What are you trying to tell me when you say you love me? What is it you believe I am telling you when I say I love you?

As you can maybe guess, these are not questions people like to hear in response to “I love you.” And I can’t blame them. I would certainly be unhappy if I were in that position; to have just opened myself so deeply, communicated one of the most important things in my life, and to be told “I don’t understand.” I don’t want to hurt anyone I care about that way.

And yet, it’s true. I know I love my family, I know I love my closest friends, but I can’t relate what I see and hear of being romantically in love to my own feelings, and I don’t trust all the great and powerful aspects people ascribe to it. And I can’t really trust what you’ve said before I know what you ascribe to it. There are plenty of things I do understand and know that I feel: intimacy, commitment, pleasure in your presence. But love is always somehow something more than the sum of those parts, and not saying it means there is something missing. Which is precisely why I can’t say it. If no one can explain to me what’s missing, how in the world am I supposed to know when I’m in love, and when…when the closeness I feel is just not enough?

So, leave it to a neuroscience study to clear things up for me. We read Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated with Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love (which you probably can’t read for free if you don’t have some kind of institutional access…) for my psychology senior seminar. The essence of the conclusion the authors make is that romantic love is not a distinct state of emotion like happiness or fear, but a process of motivation. You feel “in love” because you get a nice juicy neurochemical reward for being with your loved one, one that is different than sexual arousal. The authors then speculate that this is an adaptation to facilitate courtship rituals. Like all evo-psych explanations for behavior, it’s just a story that makes sense to the people telling it, but at least this one is pretty clearly connected to reproductive success. I mean, if you’re highly motivated to spend lots of time with a potential mate, you are probably more likely to actually mate than someone who more passively waits for matters to move along.

Sounds so much less exciting than an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempest and is never shaken, but maybe a touch more realistic? Certainly this is something I can understand. What I was missing of love is essentially desire. Which, from what I understand of myself, and of the physiological basis of motivation and reward, makes perfect sense to me.

So much of human experience comes down to the way our brains work, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of that working from the inside. I don’t buy many of the stories, but I can work with them if I know what they hinge upon. Of course, I’ll still push people to explain what they believe about love (preferably starting before any declarations to me), but I have a frame for what they’re feeling and why, and the beginnings of an answer to what it means for me to be in love.

Maybe that seems cold. Maybe you didn’t want to know that love is “nothing but” dopamine release and the activation of particular parts of the ventral-tegmental area. Seems like quite a buzzkill, right? But as far as I can tell, that’s all we ever really have. And look what we’ve managed to do anyway. I am very much with Eliezer. The glimpses I get of the universe as it is continually amaze me, no romance required.

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