your brain and you and the NYT

My friend Andrew, he makes fun of fMRI studies, and he makes even more fun of how they get explained by journalists.

He sent me a link recently and said, “the ‘romantic love’ and ‘attachment’ bits light up!

(He was being sarcastic. For all you comparative literature, English, business, and sports studies majors out there, “light up” is NOT a technical term.)

The story goes on to add that engaging in novel activities with your partner activates dopamine systems. Oooooooooh.

I would add here that Andrew recently got engaged to a lovely gal who’s obviously too good for him (insofar as she is smarter than he is AND makes the best lamb curry I ever had – seriously this curry lives in my dreams). Indeed I made him a present of The Dynamics of Marriage: Dynamic Non-Linear Models because John Gottman’s research is the best relationship research in the universe and because Andrew is a nerd to whom the phrase “dynamical systems model” is a turn ON rather than a turn OFF as it is for the rest of us. Fortunately, the lady in question is quite as geeky as he. For the rest of you, I recommend instead Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage or Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work.

So here’s my newly affianced friend, an avowed, be-blogged scientific psychologist, reading this frankly stupid article in, of all places, the NYT! (The NYT! Sad betrayal, NYT! The one place I’ve learned I can expect GOOD science journalism. Well, it’s in the Fashion & Style section, not the Science section, so I won’t grouse too much.) As a man facing marriage, what does he NEED from his science journalism about marriage? What will help him not to fuck it up, to be as effective a life partner as he can be?

In my opinion (and his, I bet), he does NOT need to know which parts of his brain “light up.”

People fuckin’ LOVE brain scan research. They LOVE hearing that there’s a “romantic love” part of the brain and an “attachment” part of the brain.” They LOVE to hear which bits light up under which conditions. They love finding out that doing new things with your partner “mimics the brain chemistry of early romantic love.”

And people, ya’ll, my dears, I have NO IDEA why you love it. I mean, it interests ME because I’m a socially awkward nerd who loves science in general and brains in particular. But I don’t hear this research and think, “And so that means I can improve MY relationship by doing novel things with my partner!” I just think, “Oh! Interesting! Dopamine! Reward! Novelty! Neat!”

“Neat!” is just about all you CAN say about it. But that’s not so helpful day to day.

But imagine you’re a brain researcher and a journalist calls you up and asks you how a general audience can apply this information to their every day lives. I can tell you from (limited) experience that you feel compelled to say SOMETHING, otherwise you feel useless and pointless, and who wants to feel that way? I want to feel useful and helpful, don’t you?

And god knows you don’t want to say, “Well we don’t actually know enough about the brain to understand what this means for people’s lives,” because that’s, you know, telling them you don’t know.

I’ve strayed from the point a bit. The point is, what does Andrew – and everyone else – need from their science journalism about relationships? Well, don’t they need practical advice? Tips, behaviors, hints about what people do when they suck at relationships, so you know what to avoid?

You can’t get that from brain research – not yet, anyway. Maybe 5, 10, 20 years from now. Right now, behavioral and psychophysiological research is much more enlightening. It’s less sexy, involves less technology, I know. But trust the older school work because we actually know what the physiology of stress is made of and we know what facial expressions are made of. We don’t REALLY know what brain activity is all about.

Beware journalism that tries to draw an immediate link between what a brain does and what a person should do.