In a recent post entitled All Attractive Men Are Scum?, I complained about a news article’s claim that a man’s capability to commit to a relationship is genetically determined. I argued that the studies in the article fail to take into account the environment, and that a person’s character shouldn’t be judged until you actually get to know them. But to tell the truth, I was a bit disingenuous and didn’t state that there’s also some interesting evidence building up indicating a large degree of truth to what was being said. Unfortunately, my own personal bias was getting in the way. I don’t personally like the conclusions some of this evidence seems to suggest, as it doesn’t line up with my view of the world. As a man, I like to believe it’s my choice whether or not I commit to a relationship, and I can choose my own values. But considering I try to be intellectually honest at all times, I found myself lying in bed with a deep sense of guilt. I stared up at my bookshelf at all my neuroscience books and thought to myself, “Do I tell them about the prairie and meadow voles?” After a fifteen minute deliberation while eating a bowl of Raisin Bran, I decided I would share with you the evidence I was previous withholding. So, here goes.
If you travel to the heartland of the United States and walk through the grasslands, you’ll come across two species of adorable creatures – prairie and meadow voles.
Aren’t they cute? I think so. So, why in the world are we talking about voles? Scientists noticed that while both species of voles are very closely related genetically, prairie voles are monogamous, completely dedicated to one partner, while meadow voles are not. Prairie voles live with their spouses in the same nest, are both actively involved in raising their young, and the males will passionately defend their spouse and children from harm. Meadow voles on the other hand, their males live in their own bachelor pads. They knock up the women and then run off, and even the women only care for their young briefly before letting them fend for themselves in the world. How could two closely related species exhibit such different reproductive and parenting behaviors?
The scientists captured the little guys and took a close look at their brains. They eventually found out that the only real difference between them was the concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. It’s experiment time! First they injected the faithful, loving prairie voles with drugs which inhibited the vasopressin receptors. The once devout husbands soon lost interest in their wives and exhibited the promiscuous behavior of meadow voles. If the unfaithful meadow voles were injected with extra doses of vasopressin, they quickly bonded with their sexual partners and became monogamous family men, like the prairie voles. You can also turn the flighty meadow vole females into good caring mothers by injecting them with oxytocin.
Wow. I don’t think I really need to say much else. We all want to believe we can choose who we are, and the values which we hold, but do we really? Quite a question, isn’t it? Could it be that us human men are driven by the same factors? Are some men born with more vasopressin receptors in their brains, causing their level of commitment to their partners? Is the same true for females? Is a woman’s dedication to her spouse and children dictated by the number of oxytocin receptors in her brain? The neuroscience textbook I’m reading concludes with the following:
The vole story is a fascinating example of how brain chemicals can regulate critical behaviors. However, by now you are undoubtedly wondering: Does this have anything to do with human relationships, faithfulness, and love? We have only incomplete facts. There is some evidence from primates that vasopressin and oxytocin levels vary with sexual arousal, and that oxytocin facilitates nurturing behavior in females and sexual assertiveness in some males. It has also been found in human fMRI experiments that regions of the brain dense with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are activated when mothers look at photographs of their own children but not when they look at photographs of the children of their friends.
Are oxytocin and vasopressin important for romantic and parental love in people? Maybe. It’s too soon to tell.
I think we can all safely conclude that this is an important issue which needs to be investigated further. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we humans are more complex than the voles, so it’s not all about just vasopressin and oxytocin, though they’re both critical.
To further illustrate this concept of brain chemistry determining our morality, think about the drug ecstasy. If you take it, your conscious state is sent into euphoria, you develop a very strong feeling of intimacy with others, everything becomes “one”, and all fears and anxieties go away. Isn’t it interesting that these are the same factors spiritual gurus talk about? Letting go of fear, seeing the interconnectedness of everything, self-acceptance, forgiving others, developing emotional intimacy, and so on. Before ecstasy was made illegal, research was done on it and neuroscientists summarized its therapeutic effects.
“Three neurobiological mechanisms for the therapeutic effects of MDMA have been suggested: “1) MDMA increases oxytocin levels, which may strengthen the therapeutic alliance; 2) MDMA increases ventromedial prefrontal activity and decreases amygdala activity, which may improve emotional regulation and decrease avoidance, and 3) MDMA increases norepinephrine release and circulating cortisol levels, which may facilitate emotional engagement and enhance extinction of learned fear associations.”
– Source, Wikipedia
Studying what drugs do to people’s brains is one of the most fascinating things things to research. Now don’t go off and start taking ecstasy; it’s a dangerous drug and has some nasty side effects. I think that meditation, focusing on various peaceful ideas, and other mental imagery causes various vibrations in our neural networks, which stimulate and activate these chemicals, altering our conscious states. It’s not random that all these things correlate with one another – forgiveness, oneness, intimacy, and so forth.
Along this same idea, one evening I was having dinner with a Christian financial planner because we were working together on a software project. He started sharing his religious ideas and told me how he believed that when he went to heaven and stood before God, all of his fears would be washed away, he’d become one with everything, his sins would be forgiven, and that he’d be surrounded by love and goodness. Does that sound familiar? It’s the same thing! Give him some ecstasy and he’d have the same experience. What’s he’s really wanting is a different state of brain chemicals. There’s no need for anything supernatural, only a deeper awareness of science and how his brain works.
This is a good place to bring up the environment. Notice that ecstasy decreases amygdala activity, which is our center for fear. The world is a rough place, and we form mental associations which fire off those fear centers, ruining our conscious state of peace and security. We all know that if a person has suffered one traumatic experience after another, it has strong effects on their personality. We also know that some people are able to more easily bounce back from such experiences. I think it’s ultimately the combination of native brain chemistry and the associations we develop throughout our lives, which dictate our conscious states. Some people’s brains are more inclined to kindness, intimacy, oneness, and so forth, than others, probably based on the density of vasopressin, oxytocin, and some other types of receptors and chemicals.
I’ve had those types of questions on my mind for years now. One question I’ve been deeply wondering about is whether or not these sorts of receptors can atrophy from lack of use, or become disconnected from other brain areas. Everything else in my body seems to wither away if it’s not used. If I don’t exercise, my muscles deteriorate. Knowledge I don’t use, I forget. The brain can also rewire itself, reallocating neurons to different functions. Can you become more emotional and loving by actively taking part in those sorts of activities, and less so if you rarely have the experiences? Or is it hard wired?
We’re now rapidly moving beyond my level of neuroscience knowledge. I would have to dedicate myself more fully to neuroscience if I was to more deeply understand the interplay of all these brain chemicals, so I better stop now.
Society’s beliefs about personal responsibility, values, and what dictates our behavior are being overturned by this sort of science. Our greatest moral teachers tell us to love one another, as if it’s something we do by willpower alone. We praise a person who has been married for a lifetime, and condemn those who have never deeply committed themselves. But let me ask you this: What if that inner empathy to love your spouse (or anyone else for that matter), which is so passionately espoused by gurus and sages, is really dictated by brain chemistry? What if the degree of passion a person is capable of exhibiting is dictated by these same chemical receptors? What then? And even more intriguing, will we later be able to alter ourselves with targeted drugs, and nanobots, and make ourselves into perfectly loving human beings? I like the idea that it’s just chemicals and brain receptors because if that’s the case, we can always invent devices to change our brains.