Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Crazy Little Thing Called Love

I studied biological psychology back in the days when brain science was little more than phrenology--basically, feeling the top of somebody's head to get a fix on their character and mental capacity. OK, it was a little more advanced than that, but not by much.

So I'm fascinated with the flood of new studies of brain activity using brain scanning devices like MRIs. Scientists are gaining insight into the deep mysteries of human behavior all over the place.

Turns out that "falling in love" has a lot in common with mental illness from the point of view of deep brain actitivy. A recent study showed that the early stages of romantic attraction cause brain activities not too different from those in mania and obsession. And it's based in "an area of the mammalian brain that takes care of the most basic functions...at an unconscious level...."

The whole thing is a form of insanity! Just as those of us with a more rational and less sentimental disposition had always suspected. Now we have the hard facts to back it up....

I also got a kick out of brain scan studies of the frontal cortex of teenagers. That's the part of the brain that controls many of the conscious, higher functions of the brain like planning, goal formation and impulse inhibition. Researchers found that teenagers have a significantly lower level of activity in the frontal cortex than adults do. Seems that the functioning of the frontal cortex doesn't fully develop until people are in their early 20's.

Another mystery solved and one more superstition banished. Some of us had come to believe that children were abducted by aliens at puberty and replaced by deranged facimiles during their teen years. Turns out that's false. It's just a case of not enough blood flow and electrical activity behind the old forehead.

If we take the final step and combine the results of the two studies, well, the prospect of a teenager in love becomes frightening indeed. Add a cell phone and a car to the equation and you've got a potential menace to society on your hands. Hey, why aren't we quarantining these people....?


Blogger ruth said...

I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I've met some folks that could use a lobotomy. I've met some others who I suspect had one on the sly.

Stick with bottles and avoid surgery, Ruth. We'd be poorer without your "frontal" thoughts.

11:44 PM  
Blogger TPB said...

"The whole thing is a form of insanity! Just as those of us with a more rational and less sentimental disposition had always suspected. Now we have the hard facts to back it up..."

Although I am a hopeless romantic and sentimental to a fault (I know us Fs baffle you!), I have to agree with you there. I savor the sensation of "falling in love" (whether it be with a man, a culture, a vision, a ministry, an ideal, a French dessert, etc.), but I have done some really STUPID things in that psychosis!

But I have some questions about this whole underdeveloped brains in teenagers. How much of this is induced by our culture which feeds it "candy" (i.e. video games, movies that are visually stimulating but with storylines that are as basic and repetitive as Jack and Jill) and a lifestyle that allows them to remain children much longer than children in other countries?

Perhaps life is a bit less "complex" in the African bush or the Indian subcontinent, but the teenagers there are active participants in their society, sometimes with families of their own. Or maybe it is because they are dealing with much more mentally stimulating activities such as survival, versus our youth who are more concerned about who's getting with who on The OC.

On the other hand, what do you think about Stephen Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You? I enjoy pop culture, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to say that it is "good for you." The hype surrounding his book makes me think that some media corporation is behind all of this.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good points Tina. Hard to know how the brains of younger folks in places like Africa compare to American teens. But the nurture part of the equation is always important, so you would think there might be some differences.

I'm not too up on Johnson's book though I've read some stuff online about it. If he's arguing that some parts of pop culture make people smarter or something, there's no doubt some truth to that. If it's well done and complex, almost anything probably contributes to folks getting smarter, and some stuff in wider culture is pretty good. In one way, blogging is becoming a part of pop culture, and who can doubt that it helps people want to write and communicate better than they might do otherwise? On the other hand, a lot of pop culture stuff is trash.

The problem with books like that is that they usually overstate things to sell well. But you do have to get people's interest and sometimes people are attracted to more extreme kinds of claims and issues. I mean, if you judged from the recent responses people have made to this blog, I'd probably get my strongest response if I focused on gay hobbits. Maybe I could change the name of the blog to "Queen of the Rings."

1:48 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

Sorry Wordcat, I just don't know enough cognitive science to comment intelligently on brain scans.

About pop culture- have either of you come across anything by Jean Baudrillard? His critique is that it subjugates the masses by preventing them from thinking about their situation. (TPB, here's your media conspiracy.)

Hope this isn't too dry:

"...his postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (e.g., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior.

In this postmodern world, individuals flee from the "desert of the real" for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience. In this universe, subjectivities are fragmented and lost, and a new terrain of experience appears that for Baudrillard renders previous social theories and politics obsolete and irrelevant. Tracing the vicissitudes of the subject in present-day society, Baudrillard claims that contemporary subjects are no longer afflicted with modern pathologies like hysteria or paranoia. Rather, they exist in "a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him. In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion" (1988: 27). For Baudrillard, the "ecstasy of communication" means that the subject is in close proximity to instantaneous images and information, in an overexposed and transparent world. In this situation, the subject "becomes a pure screen a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks" (1988: 27). In other words, an individual in a postmodern world becomes merely an entity influenced by media, technological experience, and the hyperreal."

-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

And I thought the "desert of the real" line was from The Matrix. Too much pop culture I guess.

11:22 AM  

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