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. 



Flexible Love, at Any Age

The New York Times runs a series of short videos titled “Modern Love” (does David Bowie know about this?). The latest installation is narrated by a 71 year-old woman who describes the experience of falling in love at her age, comparing it to her younger days. She talks about differences in preparing for dates, perceptions of the concept of ‘soulmates,’ the sense of urgency, jealousy, ephemerality of life and relationships, and the pain of loss. Pretty thorough for a 2 minute video.   

To me, the most interesting part is that love really can strike at any age, illustrating the gap between proximate and evolutionary levels. Evolutionary hypotheses for the origin of pair-bonding (and love) often highlight some function related to reproduction. Robin Dunbar  summarized four possibilities: 

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Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright  (comedian)

 It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)



Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:

the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)


you could be a winner at the game of life

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Part 9. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Love Is an Evolutionary Compromise

This is part 9 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.


I want love to roll me over slowly,
Stick a knife inside me, and twist it all around.
I want love to grab my fingers gently,
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground. – Jack White (Love Interruption[1]  

“Everything is a double-edged sword… Even single-edged swords are a double-edged sword. Because you can cut something with it, but the other edge is kind of flat and it doesn’t cut very well.” – Louis CK (comedian)



Yesterday’s post looked at the neurobiology of romantic love, asking whether evolutionary perspectives are sufficient to explain this highly significant part of what it means to be human. It also raised the question as to why love seems to be a painful experience for so many people.

Before going further, it’s important to remember that while humans are undoubtedly evolved, biological organisms, we are also animals with complex behavior, language, and culture. Others have said this better than I can. To Jon Marks (2010), we are “biocultural ex-apes,” while Agustin Fuentes wrote that “human behavior is almost always ‘naturenurtural’ ” (2012:16). Just as human modification of the environment can affect natural selection (Hawks et al 2007; Laland et al. 2010), so can culture profoundly influence the way we interpret powerful emotional impulses, including those related to desire and love.

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Part 8. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Evolution, Love, & Suffering

This is part 8 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.



we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or our love.” – Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents)


One of my more vivid memories from early childhood is of Tammy and her two friends. I was about 6 years old, and in the first grade. They were third graders, a couple of years older. By coincidence, our two classes had arrived simultaneously at the hallway outside the girls’ lavatory. In those days, teachers took their entire class to ‘the lav’ for efficiency’s sake, and every day the boys finished our business promptly then lined up in front of the teacher as we waited for the girls to finish theirs. On that day, our schedule happened to align with grade three.

1st grade

1st grade

I can still remember Tammy looking at the note I had written her, passed along by a friend earlier in the day, with her friends on either side. Exactly what I wrote is lost to time, but I recall the romantic sentiment behind it and drawing a picture of a boy and a girl kissing. Today, such behavior (or going even further) could actually get a young child suspended from school.

What compelled me to write the note, I don’t know. I do remember that Tammy seemed kind and pleasant to look at, and that it felt right – even at that age – to try to express it. However, that feeling quickly turned to embarrassment, when she and her friends waved, laughed in unison, and –in sing-song fashion – said “Hi, Patrick.” We were all just kids and no harm was intended, but at that point, I wanted to hide. And, though I can’t remember this part very well, I probably wondered why the third grade teacher was so slow in taking her students back to class.

It wasn’t clear where I went wrong, but my interpretation of Tammy’s behavior was that my private feelings of attraction, which came pretty easily, somehow violated the rules. Early experiences carry a lot of weight, and that incident taught me that revealing private emotions was a risky endeavor. It’s tempting to want to hide them away[1]

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, I wanted to develop on some of the elements in this innocent story in a couple of posts (update: part 9 here), such as where attraction and its hypertrophic cousin, romantic love, originate, and even why they might show up in early childhood.

The other element is the more negative aspects of romantic pursuits, which extend well beyond the embarrassment of childhood puppy love and into profound despair and suffering. Perhaps the cynics have good reasons to feel that it is somewhat myopic to give love its own day to be celebrated while glossing over the countless people it has wounded over the millennia. Homer Simpson, in his toast to inebriation, once referred to alcohol as “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I don’t think too many people would object if we replaced the word ‘alcohol’ with love.

So, what is this thing that nature has given us?

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Part 5. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Pair-Bonding and Romantic Love

This is the fifth part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.


One of these days I will wake up – which I think I have done already – and realize to myself that I really do love. I find it very difficult to allow my whole life to rest on the existence of another creature. I find it equally difficult, because of my innate arrogance, to believe in the idea of love. There is no such thing, I say to myself. There is lust, of course, and usage, and jealousy, and desire and spent powers, but no such thing as the idiocy of love. Who invented that concept? I have wracked my shabby brains and can find no answer. (Letter from Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor)

“Emotions and motivations (are) hierarchically ordered in the brain. Fear can overcome joy, for example. Jealousy can stifle tenderness…But in this pecking order of basic and complex emotions, background feelings and powerful drives, romantic love holds a special place: close to the zenith, the pinnacle, the top. Romantic love can dominate the drive to eat and sleep. It can stifle fear, anger, or disgust. It can override one’s sense of duty to family or friends. It can even triumph over the will to live. As Keats said, ‘I could die for you.’ ” (Helen Fisher 2004: 97-8)

“Only love can leave such a mark / But only love can heal such a scar.” (Paul Hewson)

Attempting to summarize the evolution of romantic love and pair-bonding in humans is an enormous task. This is exacerbated by many complications: the literature on these topics is vast; the term ‘pair-bond’ has been used in different ways by different primatologists in the past and is often erroneously confused with ‘monogamy’; the neurobiology of romantic love – which is not a prerequisite of pair-bonding – is complex; the question of when/if humans became pair-bonded in our evolutionary history is highly speculative; and then there is the complicating factor of culture. Furthermore, parts two through four in this series addressed ten biological traits indicating that humans have promiscuity built into us to some degree, and that monogamy, or at least lifelong monogamy, does not come easily.

Gibbons (Hylobates lar). From Wikipedia.

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Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (May 29, 2017)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading