Monday, July 30, 2012
My Chemical Romance
I came home from the Courage conference super-stressed and exhausted. My brain is just starting to come back on line, but I'm still a little slow – I'm hoping to get around to the last parts of my series soon, but I'm not quite there yet.
In the meantime, I got a fascinating comment on “Forbidden Fruit, Hidden Lies,” which I would like to respond to. The relevant paragraph is here:
Savia: “Women experience a flood of oxytocin — the same hormone which they produce in labor and in nursing a baby. Oxytocin causes a woman to be forgetful, decreases her ability to think rationally — and causes an incredibly strong emotional attachment to form with the man she is with. Men also produce some oxytocin during sexual intercourse. But their bodies also produce a hormone called vasopressin. Vasopressin, called “the monogamy molecule,” kicks in after sexual activity, and its impact is to heighten a man’s sense of responsibility. It encourages that part of him which says, “My gosh, she may be carrying my child! I’d better get serious about life! I’ve got to get to work, to provide for this family!”
Savia is presenting a lovely narrative, and one that I am profoundly inclined to agree with – but one which suffers from the usual problems involved in trying to narrativize biology. What I mean by that is that biology does not contain simple “meanings” in the sense implied by this analysis of chemical sexuality. There is no “monogamy molecule,” nor, for that matter, is oxytocin really a bonding chemical – it's primary effect is to cause uterine contractions, which is why they put you on an oxytocin drip in order to induce labour. Now, the body processes these chemicals, oxytocin and vasopressin, in a variety of ways, some of which are purely physiological, and others of which are psychological or neurological, which is where we arrive at this idea of chemicals which cause emotional attachment and chemicals which heighten a sense of responsibility. In studies of men and women, it has been discovered that these chemicals seem to produce certain emotional reactions. I'm not sure whether the studies have looked at brain activity, or just at self-reported emotional states, but my analysis is the same either way.
The problem is this: biochemical processes never take place in isolation. The brain is not a piece of hardware, like a computer, in which the activation of particular circuits always produces singular and predictable results. Brains are organic and heuristic, that is, they learn, and in the process of learning they grow and take on new characteristics. The reactions that a person has when a simple neurochemical is introduced into their system are conditioned by the ways in which the brain has learned, often from a very young age, to process that chemical. This means that a human emotion is a complicated, multivalent reality: it's not just a neurological syndrome predictably produced by the release of certain chemicals and the activation of certain brain centres.
It could get more complicated, but for the moment I'll stick a simple three-tiered model of human emotion:
1. Neurophysiology: This component of emotion might be called “feeling.” It is simple, uncomplicated, and fairly stable across cultures. The feelings of anger, fear, pleasure, and so forth are basically neurological, and they have a fairly constant physiognomy, including attendant physical sensations and facial expressions.
2. Learned social behaviours: We learn how to express and understand our emotions through constantly reinforced social constructs. These take the form of imagery (think of the way that advertising effects emotional landscapes), behavioural conditioning (punishment, reward, etc.), examples, role-modeling, ideology, language conventions, spiritual practices, and so forth.
3. Voluntary habits: We choose how to express, repress, sublimate, or otherwise process our culturally conditioned emotions. By choosing to expose ourselves to particular emotional experiences, we are able to deliberately train ourselves: for example, a person who regularly engages in thrill-seeking will be more likely to be energized, as opposed to paralyzed, by fear when it confronts him.
All three of these elements of emotional experience play into one another. Neurological reactions are conditioned and reinforced by cultural and voluntary habits; cultural tropes arise from the voluntary decisions of many individuals as they try to cope with their neurological reality; and of course volition is always working within the constrains of biology and culture. What this means is that any “meaning” which is discovered in a particular psychochemical reaction is always going to be, in part, a product of the particular culture in which the study is done. If a study of 2000 contemporary Western women finds that oxytocin reduces logical thinking, and increases feelings of intense emotional bonding, really all we've proven is that Western women in the early part of the 3rd Millenium generally have an experience of sentimentality and bonding related to sex, birthing and breast-feeding – a fairly obvious and not especially impressive finding.
Now, the obvious question to ask me personally is why would I be so cynical about this particular narrative? After all, it reinforces everything that I believe about the language of the body, the purpose of sexuality, and the proper order of nature. From where I'm standing it is certainly a convenient story, and it's even a beautiful one, one which shows forth a great deal of truth. So what's my beef?
Well...I don't actually have a problem with the narrative that says that oxytocin is a bonding chemical which runs like a golden thread through female sexuality, from intercourse through labour and into nursing. I quite like the idea myself. Nor do I have a problem with the notion that vasopressin produces feelings of increased responsibility and protectiveness in men after they have sex. It's a lovely story. My problem is with the subtle underlying implication that people are more or less neurological puppets pulled about by biochemical strings.
This notion goes back a long way in Western thought, and is the natural derivative of a tradition which sees emotion as something which happens to a person. You can see this in the close etymological relationships between the Latin passeo (I suffer), the English “passive” and the traditional use of the term “the passions” to refer to the emotions. Emotions in the West are generally conceived of as powerful psychological, or neurological forces which are fundamentally irrational and involuntary.
I'd like to challenge that notion, and I think that the example of the effects of oxytocin on a woman's psyche is a great example. In theory, “Oxytocin causes a woman to be forgetful, decreases her ability to think rationally — and causes an incredibly strong emotional attachment to form with the man she is with,” or, I would add, with the child that she is birthing or nursing. Now, I have a pretty good idea of what a hit of oxytocin feels like – I've nursed a lot of babies, and there is definitely a very distinctive chemical feeling, very similar to the chemical feeling that one gets after making love, which kicks in at a certain point in the nursing process. Although I can't prove it, I suspect that small amounts of the same chemical are released when a woman sees some kitschy, sentimental image that reminds her of babies: Anne Geddes photographs, Precious Moments figurines, and so forth. Certainly the psychochemical experience is very similar.
The problem is, my brain does not automatically process this psychochemistry as a positive, emotional-bonding type of feeling. My automatic response to seeing a Precious Moments figurine is a very visceral, gut-wrenching desire to throw it into the nearest wall. I was pretty disturbed when I started nursing my first baby, and found that it produced a very similar sense of profound alienation, discomfort and dislocation. I would feed my daughter, and I would feel really intensely sad and anxious...sad and anxious in much the same way that I often felt about sexual intimacy, particularly with men. My psychological experience was not one of close-bonding, but rather a sort of “get away, run away” reaction.
I suppose that I could think of myself as the victim of an affective disorder, but that's not how I like to construct my narrative. Instead, I would prefer to think that my reaction probably has something to do with the hyper-rationalization of my personality that I've subjected myself to at various points in my life – remember the point about oxytocin reducing rational thinking. For me, a reduction in rationality very naturally causes my rational faculties to kick into overdrive in order to compensate. My feelings of alienation and discomfort in the presence of extreme sentimental stimuli is probably the result of my brain being overtaxed as it tries to simultaneously process a reason-inhibiting chemical, and to grapple with Foucault or John Paul II at the same time.
In any case, I have found that it is possible to overcome my “natural” reactions to this chemical. I concentrated on studying that feeling of sadness and anxiety, I worked with it, massaged it, altered my mental state, changed my breathing and relaxation, prayed about it, and eventually I figured out how to experience that rush as a pleasant, loving, glowing emotion, one well ordered to the stimuli that provoked it. Once I'd done it once, it was just a matter of taking the time to do it over and over again as I nursed my babies until my brain learned to adopt that response by default. If I'm stressed, or in a hurry, or distracted, or if I'm trying to do heavy intellectual work, then I'll still fall back into that original, discomfort reaction, but for the most part I now find both the experience of nursing, and the sexual afterglow, to be positive and pleasurable.
The point is that by conceiving of emotion as something which I do, a process in which I am actively involved, and by thinking about my emotions as a form of intelligible and intelligent engagement with the world, I've found that it's possible to slowly work to reorganize my emotional reactions in order to conform them to the Good, the Beautiful and the True. The “feelings,” the underlying neurological and biochemical experiences, remain the same, but the fully formed emotions which arise out of them can be radically altered – so much so that an experience which began as one of pain and alienation could become one of intense love and joy.