Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why I Loathe Reductionist Science

An article recently made the rounds in social media circles, called "There's No Such Thing as Everlasting Love (According to Science)," which can be found here:

I'm no fan of this article. My main complaint with it, and with other publications of its ilk, is its reduction of the human experience to chemical release or electrical patterns in the brain and body.

As both a scientist and a human being, this offends me. I can know that I undergo a flood of dopamine, seratonin, and oxytocin while cuddling with someone after sex, but that absolutely doesn't describe my experience of post-coital snuggles. These bodily functions are definitely a portion of the experience, and it can be good to know what occurs in the brain and body during intimacy, but to reduce the entirety of our experience of abstract concepts like love, happiness, or contentment to a purely physiological description is incomplete and ridiculous.

I have, in moments of bliss while snuggling in my loved ones' arms, enjoyed deep feelings of connection, contentment, relaxation, and hope. With some partners, these feelings have been buoyed by the knowledge that these people were objectively good to and for me: they were kind, generous, loyal, and respectful. My biologically-based emotions were exponentially reinforced by the thought that this was a good experience, building something lasting and important with someone very worthwhile.

I have also had enjoyable feelings while sharing moments with people I knew would not stay in my life: a feeling of connection as a group who will never meet again all share a joke, a palpable feeling of simultaneous experience of a great live show with an enthusiastic audience. They were wonderful experiences, but I would never call that love, or claim to be in love with those relative strangers. The very idea that you can have "moments of falling in love" with people you hardly know cheapens the experience of what we think of as love.

For me, love is a complex, subjective, exceptional experience that cannot happen quickly or fleetingly. I am certain that no one else has my experience of love, just as much as I know my love with one person isn't the same as my love with another. Each love I feel--for my mother, my boyfriends, my friends, my pets--is unique.

There are things science can't explain, and I don't mean gods or supernatural phenomena. I mean our human experience of life, the abstract concepts we all understand but have difficulty defining: love, joy, heartache, hope, peace, determination. I am not even interested in a physical or physiological explanation of these things. When my idea of hope differs from yours, how can an fMRI possibly explain what happens when we feel it? How does it help anyone to know when their amygdala is involved in sensory processing? What relevance does my knowledge of neurotransmitter release have on my experience of it?

I do realize that understanding for the sake of understanding is a worthwhile endeavor, and that identifying outlying individuals who may be deficient in a certain neurotransmitter or brain function can be important for treating mental illness. But to observe a brain in an MRI and call its readout "love" is to cast aside what truly makes us human: our narrative of our own lives.

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