Neuro-feedback and Love

This is an interesting video on neuroscience and one individual’s story of getting over a relationship. A while back, I did a series titled “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous,” including romantic love. What I find intriguing about the video is the idea that someone could possibly look at their own brain in operation and use that as a way to intervene and improve someone’s mental state. 

It reminds me of a fortune cookie I once read: “Love is like war; easy to begin but hard to stop.”

By the way, Skunk Bear is the best. 

 

 

Year in Review: Top Posts of 2017

Looking through the 5 most frequently read essays of 2017, I see few themes. They are mostly attempts to find reasons to be hopeful (even though that has been hard at times). Humans are adaptable and flexible, and we aren’t fated to any single behavioral way of being. That means we can always make a better world. Light up the darkness.

 

1. The Conditions of the Game: It’s Not a “World of Eternal Struggle” (Sept 2)

This was by far the most read post on this site, which I wrote after the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was upon seeing a photo of a man with a t-shirt that quoted Hitler in which he wrote that ours is “a world of eternal struggle.” I found it disturbing, but also just wrong. In evolution, adaptations are context specific, and they depend on the conditions of the game. This is also true for cooperation and conflict.

“How we view the world matters. If we see it as zero-sum, as an eternal struggle against other people where only one party can win, then we will act accordingly. Norton and Sommers (2011) found that many white people see racial relations as a zero-sum game: that if other groups are making progress toward equality, that this progress comes at their expense. But remember that non-zero-sum relationships are widespread. With cooperation so prolific in nature (genes, cells, organisms, groups, human societies), it just seems odd to declare that life is solely a contest of struggle. Nor does it make sense to say that cooperation is impossible between groups. Or we can see it as a chance for coalitions, that the success and well-being of others around us does not require us to lose. We make a niche for the others around us, as they do for us, and we all decide whether the costs that come with building up our armor are worth it. They may be, depending on how we perceive the conditions of the game.

I don’t know about you, but I think my life would be better if I was surrounded by healthy, fulfilled, cooperative people over those who feel distrustful, held back, and resentful. Of course, some people may feel differently. There are many strategies one can use. But don’t argue that nature gave us only one hand to play.”

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Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

The Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park

The Vigeland monolith in Oslo (source). 

previously borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think “tragically confused” is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief.

During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck.

I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions.

Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop.

An anemone escaping a starfish. Flexibility – the ability to respond to circumstances – is the hallmark of behavior, even for anemones. 

This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing.

This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It’s also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves.

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Blank-ogamous, Polyamory, & NPR

Today, the Humans are Blank-ogamous series made an appearance on NPR’s Blog “13.7: Cosmos and Culture.” In her post “A Cultural Moment for Polyamory,” friend Barbara King (who has been very kind over the years by sharing my writing on social media), wondered why it is that polyamory and non-monogamy seems to have reached a critical mass.

She asks why is it being seen in so many different places recently? Have we crossed some threshold in society? I’m not sure. I think there is growing acceptance of different arrangements and relationship styles, at least in some corners of the country and the world.

It will be interesting to see how readers will respond to the post. NPR disabled the “comments” feature on their site some time ago because, as seems to be happening everywhere, comments became full of not-very-constructive, angry criticism about virtually everything. From monitoring social media, however, there doesn’t seem to be the reaction I thought there would be. Sometimes these things are crap shoots. Timing matters when a post is published, and maybe we’re all overwhelmed by news from the political world. Perhaps it’s Trump fatigue. Or, maybe polyamory has become mundane, and people aren’t reacting with the same degree disapproval they once did. It’s hard to say.

For my part, I didn’t argue in favor or against non-monogamy. I think it’s probably true that all types of relationships have their own pros and cons. Barbara quoted from a couple of places in the series, where I was basically saying that people are complex. 

In a blog post (one of a series) about humans’ flexible sexual behavior, Clarkin writes:

“In my readings, I noticed that different researchers seemed to arrive at a fairly similar model of erotic relationships, which is that they have three main components: sexual desire, passionate love (aka romantic love or infatuation), and companionate love (aka comfort love or attachment). One model included a fourth piece: mania or obsessive love.

These are among the more powerful of human motivations, but they do not always overlap perfectly, setting up the potential for flexibility as well as for conflict. One reason for this is that the different parts, whatever we want to call them — lust, romance, limerence, companionate love, friendship, commitment — are somewhat biologically distinct, and these can be arranged into different combinations and felt toward different people.”

Finally, although I finished the Blank-ogamous series a while ago, I never got the chance to blog specifically about polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy. Maybe I should. 

Testosterone Rex & “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous”

Two friends and colleagues of mine, Barbara King and Meredith Reiches, separately notified me that the “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous” series from this site was cited (positively) in Cordelia Fine’s new book “Testosterone Rex: Myths  of Sex, Science, and Society.” I’ve not yet seen the book, though I will have to soon.

Barbara was kind enough to take a photo of the relevant passage and send it to me. It looks like Fine cited Part 1 of the series, and I will have to see where it fits in the context of the book (not to mention learning from Fine’s other insights as well). In any case, I’m grateful — for friends who keep an eye out for me, and that Fine thought the series was worth something. 

cordelia-fine

For those who are interested, and don’t want to read the entire (Blank)-ogamous series, a summary can be found here.

Also, this is a publisher-produced video and synopsis of Cordelia Fine’s new book.

We Are an Obligatorily Social Species

In an essay published on Aeon earlier this year, Kimberley Brownlee, an associate professor of legal and moral philosophy at the University of Warwick, made the case that our well-being depends in part upon our social connections.

“(There is) a growing body ofpsychological evidencethat indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life and, more deeply, to human wellbeing. For the most part, we need one another; we cannot flourish or even survive without each other. These fundamental needs are the ground for a range of rights that we neglect, but should not, including the rights to be part of a network of social connections.

In our individualistic, western culture, where the romantic image of the great loner prevails, it will take some argumentative muscle to show that we should adopt a different model of the ‘strongest man’. We could start with the thought that true strength lies in exposing ourselves to others’ pain and suffering, in being open to intimacy, and in being touched by others’ needs, loves, hates and hopes. The strongest person might well be the one who makes herself vulnerable to others while being determined to survive it and become a better person for it. The strongest person in the world is she who is most connected.”

I’ve tried to make the same case before (see below), that we are all connected and that this stems from our evolutionary roots as social primates. I won’t rehash those arguments here. Rather, it’s just another reminder that we are an obligatorily social species.

https://kevishere.com/2014/02/26/our-essential-fragile-bonds/

https://kevishere.com/2012/03/08/cosmically-connected-primates/

Grooming

Chimpanzees grooming

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?

I wrote a new post for the “Evolution Institute” website. I had wrapped up the Humans are (Blank)-ogamous series, but a friend asked if I would write something for the site. So, this is what I came up with. It has a few snippets from the series, but the majority of it is new. I’m always tentative after writing, not knowing if it’s any good or not. Now that I’ve re-read it a few more times, I think it’s not too shabby. Anyway…

Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous?