Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dirty minds: how our brains influence love, sex and relationships

Dirty minds: how our brains influence love, sex and relationships is an ambitious book that attempts to discover what impacts the brain and genetics have on how and why; love, sex and relationships develop in human beings. The book is by professional science writer Kayt Sukel, and according to her was written to help her understand the inner workings of love after her relationship with her (now ex) husband dramatically changed after the birth of their first child.

It is important to note that the book is a discussion of what happens from a neurological perspective to people when they are in love or when they become attracted to someone. It’s not a dating advice book, which the author clearly states in the introduction, it does not try to tell you that similar brain chemistry or brain functions are the key to everlasting happiness and if dating advice is what you’re after this is not the book for you. If you love reading about neurological and biological studies told by a relatable narrator and punctuated with some funny personal stories, you have found a fantastic read! Though I am not a huge reader fan of biology and neurology I thought the book was a fun and engaging and it was nice that this Valentine’s day instead of reading how to attract a partner I was learning that my brain is an amazing organ and that every crush I have ever had involved some serious neuroscience.

The title Dirty Minds may lead you to believe that the love discussed in the book is of the 18+ variety and to be honest that’s what I expected when I picked up the book. Romantic love is the main focus however it is far from the only focus and the book explores some very diverse types of love. Heterosexual and homosexual attraction were the bulk of the book, but less expected chapters on familial love, religious ‘love’ and the idea of unconditional love were also present.  All of these types of love were explored from a neurological perspective and there was very little discussion outside of that. For example the book didn't go into philosophical or religious discussions about whether there is an all loving and all powerful God, instead focusing on how thinking about loving God impacts the brain. It makes no judgements about how people choose to love only that in every case the brain reacts to the feeling of love in interesting ways.

Despite how relatable Sukel is this is still at its core a very technical book and there are some confusing explanations of brain chemistry, most of them relating directly to the brain and human hormones acting on the brain. I could tell through Sukel’s frequent uses of examples and diagrams that she is trying to dumb down the science for the casual reader. That being said I still found some sections hard to understand, (especially since my formal training in biology stopped after 11th grade.) Long names of hormonal chains and neurochemical processes were especially easy to get bogged down in. The book never quite got to the point where it was frustrating or made me want to stop reading. When it seems like Sukel is straying away from the core topic (love, sex and the brain) while talking about hormones or complex scientific studies she manages to bring the topic back to the original intent and tie everything together neatly.

There were also interesting sections on the male and female brain, discounting much of the Men are From Mars women are from Venus rhetoric that pop culture has given us. The neurobiologists in the book scoff at explaining away behaviour like infidelity or lack of sex drive as being inherent to the sexes. They argue that humans have a much bigger section of their brain devoted to cognition and reasoning so to blame things, like cheating on brain development is wrong. Though there are slight differences noted in male and female brain development, men and women’s brains experience love in almost the exact same way.

As the title would suggest the book is funny, though the humour is sometimes racy it never lived up the ‘dirty’ aspect implied in the title, though I am notoriously hard to shock or scandalize. The humour is mostly self-deprecating and ironic and the drier parts of the book are spiked with jokes and personal stories. One of the most memorable stories was when she participated in a study where she was asked to achieve orgasm in an FMRI machine. This study was to map how orgasms influence chemicals in the brain. The whole sequence of events leading up to and following the FMRI orgasm are told with brutal and hilarious honesty and vivid detail.

Dirty minds promises it will not promote or solicit dating advice or try to sell anything that would increase success in love. Sukel does not waver from that position. She explores various neurobiological responses to things like dopamine and pheromones and hormones but concludes that their actual impact on romantic love is questionable. Both she and the scientists running these experiments say that brain chemistry is only a small piece in a huge puzzle of what dictates love and attraction.

The book as a whole is more of a how things work guide to the brain rather than a why things work guide to romance. The studies cited tend to be inconclusive and are more focussed on showing that things happen rather than explaining why they happen and on the whole show little promise in unlocking a complete understanding human behaviour in love. The book notes over and over that humans are more complex than their brain chemistry and that a book focused solely on the biological aspect of attraction does not tell the whole story on what makes people attractive or fall love with one another. That being said if you are interested in brain chemistry, neurology, biology and love, this book and you will be a match made in heaven.  As for me I'm not in love with the book but more than happy to remain friends.

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