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September 2007
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November 2007

Love that Anterior Commissure!

The Anterior Commissure is a six-month-old blog I've just discovered, and it's a great read. Its author, Kate, promises her blog is "exploring the intersection between hormones, brain, and behavior."  And her tagline is everything I'm excited about right now: The science of sex and mating, gender and attraction, pregnancy and parental behavior.

Kate is a graduate student -- in neuroscience, maybe -- doing what seems to be very interesting work on identifying structures in the anterior hypothalamus. She's a bit mysterious about where and what she's working on; I'd love to know more.

She's named her blog after the anterior commissure because, she says,

... the AC is quite ventral, i.e. it rests almost at the bottom of the brain. Immediately below that is the anterior portion of the hypothalamus, a complex and phylogenetically old mish-mosh of cells that, for part of my thesis work, I've been attempting to identify and define. The specific region that I use the AC to find is called the medial preoptic area, which has important roles in male sex behavior, diuresis, temperature regulation, gestation, and maternal behavior.

It looks to be a nice place to read highly informed commentary on a variety of scientific topics. Check it out.

Talkers and Touchers

People loved Louanne Brizendine's book, The Female Brain, because it used scientific studies and Brizendine's experiences as a clinician treating symptoms of menopause and other hormonal imbalances to say things we feel are true: Women are more connected to others, better at communicating.

These things make sense, because women's brains are more susceptible to the bonding effects of oxytocin.

Except ... one of Brizendine's statements, one that was repeated in every news story, has been proven false. Brizendine claimed that studies showed that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day, while men speak a mere 7,000. There's nothing to back that up, while plenty of studies found men gabbing as much or more than women.

The idea that gender differences are based in biology continues to make people uncomfortable and to incite denial.

The Guardian has an excerpt from a new book by Deborah Cameron called "The Myth of Mars and Venus." She makes a good case for the extreme variability between individuals. Cameron argues that sex differences are fairly meaningless, because any individual may be very different from any other, and more like someone of the opposite sex.

She writes,

Chambers' reference to individual men and women points to another problem with generalisations such as "men interrupt more than women" or "women are more talkative than men". As well as underplaying their similarities, statements of the form "women do this and men do that" disguise the extent of the variation that exists within each gender group. Explaining why he had reacted with instant scepticism to the claim that women talk three times as much as men, Liberman predicted: "Whatever the average female versus male difference turns out to be, it will be small compared with the variation among women and among men." Focusing on the differences between men and women while ignoring the differences within them is extremely misleading but, unfortunately, all too common.

As someone in the 1970s who insisted that all gender differences were cultural, I'm bemused by what science has shown: that the endocrine system profoundly affects brain structure and behavior. Still, I think that, rather than insisting that anyone behave more femininely or masculinely, I think the information can be used to give ourselves and each other a break when we don't behave according to cultural expectations.

When Does Attachment Disorder Happen?

In an interview with, Jane Aronson, the pediatrician known as the Orphan Doctor, talks about foreign adoption, something she strongly advocates. Aronson is pediatrician to movie star adopters including Angeline Jolie.

In the interview, Aronson points out that adoptions of older foreign children can be very successful when the child was raised by a family, but then lost his parents to AIDS, war or other misfortune. She gives a helpful analysis of adoption services in various countries.

Aronson certainly is highly experienced in overseas adoption, through her organization, Worldwide Orphans Foundation. She makes one strange and really inaccurate remark, however: She claims the science shows that attachment disorder is mostly the result of brain damage or brain chemistry imbalances in the womb.

She told the interviewer,

And attachment likely has more to do with brain damage that occurs during the pregnancy, due to malnourishment, exposure to toxins in the environment, infections during the pregnancy, exposure to alcohol and drugs and smoking. All of that conspires to cause damage to brain structures that are involved in the actual chemistry and physiology of attachment. So when people use this sort of artificial convention of saying, you know, "You gotta get 'em by three, or else they're ruined," I think that's also not taking into consideration that attachment likely has to do with brain chemistry during pregnancy.

While it's accepted that a hostile womb environment -- a mother who takes drugs, who doesn't want the baby, who's being abused -- can make the baby hyper-vigilant and hyper-reactive before he's born, neuroscientists like Bruce Perry who study disordered kids are convinced that not only abuse but also neglect and simple lack of attention after birth can create post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

In the comments on a blog summary of the interview, most people think Aronson is full of it.

For the perspective of a neuroscientist who studies traumatized children, read this interview with Michael de Bellis of Duke University.

See also RAD Epidemic in Russian Adoptions?

Why Do I Feel Stoned After Sex?

Some people say they feel stoned after sex. That is, it's that same feeling they get after smoking pot.

I can't find scientific evidence, but I think this is because marijuana causes an oxytocin release in the brain, just as orgasm does.

Oxytocin is released naturally by the hypothalamus during sex and at orgasm. In the body, it causes a feeling of well-being and relaxation. In the brain, it causes us to feel connected to whomever we're with.

I think this same kind of oxytocin release in the brain is responsible for some of the nicest effects of marijuana, that "mellow" feeling, and also that deep soul connection that sometimes happens, that hippie brotherhood.

The drug ecstasy reportedly produces similar feelings of connection with other. And ecstasy, also known as MDMA, has been shown to increase oxytocin release in rats, while clubsters on ecstasy had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood. I don't think it's a stretch to believe that pot has the same effect -- if your brain happens to work that way. (Some people respond to potential intimacy with fear or avoidance; they may feel edgy or paranoid when they smoke weed.)

So that stony feeling after sex -- again, if your brain works that way, and if the sex felt safe and connected -- would be the same stony feeling you got from marijuana.

See also "The Sex/Food/Love Connection" for insight into how food also triggers these same responses.

Is It Love or Is It Limerence?

We humans should move toward emotional and physical intimacy -- of all kinds, not just sex -- as simply and naturally as a flower turns toward the sun. So, if our brains are made for love, why do we need online dating and divorce courts? Why is it so hard to find and keep love? Why do we feel so alone?

We can't answer these questions because we don't know love. We're grasping for a prize we can't get our heads around, let alone our hearts. We've been sold a bill of goods about what love is, and our pitifully warped and anemic definition keeps us from taking the steps we need to get it.

You know the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each of them has his hand on one small part. "An elephant is long and squirmy," says the elder, holding the trunk. "It's a round, rough rock," says the one leaning his head against the elephant's side. "It's a wide leaf in the wind." "It's a polished spike." "It's a snake."

What if you were one of these men, not blind but maybe blindfolded, and you were sent into the jungle to capture an elephant? How could you find one? Could you recognize it if you bumped into one?

It's the same with love.

What is love? Is it that rush when a stranger across the room triggers unconscious memories of Mom or Dad? When someone's touch sends fire across your skin? When he's so cruel sometimes and it hurts so much that you're desperate for just a smile?

If you're calm and contented but you only have sex once a week, are you in love? What if you only have sex once a month? What if you never have sex?

If you both like and love your best friend, while you both hate and love your mate, are both those things love?

How can we talk about love with our lovers when we may not be talking about the same thing? Remember "limerence?" This word was an attempt by psychologist Dorothy Tennov to create a less mushy concept of love by renaming one specific kind, the euphoria and uncertainty of the first stage of falling in love. Okay, it's an awkward and unromantic word, but it could simplify some of those early relationship discussions.

While we probably could use 28 different words for love, there's one kind that I think is "true love":  the deep, enduring bond forged by oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that triggers a special physical and mental state that lets us live happily with a life partner until death do us part, as well as give up our lives to the care and feeding of squawling babies.

Love like this changes the very structure of the brain and expresses itself through every nerve as it flushes the body with healing chemicals. It isn't all in your head, but it starts there.

I guess it's unrealistic to wish for a new vocabulary for all the states and traits of human attachment, a language of love. But at least, let's remember how much love is like an elephant.