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See Inside October 2005

Unweaving the Heart

Science only adds to our appreciation for poetic beauty and experiences of emotional depth
Michael Shermer



BRAD HINES
These good acts give us pleasure, but how happens it that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses. --Thomas Jefferson, 1814

Nineteenth-century English poet John Keats once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had "Destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism." Natural philosophy, he lamented, "Will clip an Angel's wings/Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine/Unweave a rainbow."

Does a scientific explanation for any given phenomenon diminish its beauty or its ability to inspire poetry and emotional experiences? I think not. Science and aesthetics are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. I am nearly moved to tears, for example, when I observe through my small telescope the fuzzy little patch of light that is the Andromeda galaxy. It is not just because it is lovely, but because I also understand that the photons of light landing on my retina left Andromeda 2.9 million years ago, when our ancestors were tiny-brained hominids. I am doubly stirred because it was not until 1923 that astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson in the hills just above my home in Los Angeles, deduced that this "nebula" was actually a distant extragalactic stellar system of immense size. He subsequently discovered that the light from most galaxies is shifted toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum (literally unweaving a rainbow of colors), meaning that the universe is expanding away from its explosive beginning. That is some aesthetic science.

No less awe-inspiring are recent attempts to unweave the emotions, described by anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University in her book Why We Love (Henry Holt, 2004). Lust is enhanced by dopamine, a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus that in turn triggers the release of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire. But love is the emotion of attachment reinforced by oxytocin, a hormone synthesized in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary. In women, oxytocin stimulates birth contractions, lactation and maternal bonding with a nursing infant. In both women and men it increases during sex and surges at orgasm, playing a role in pair bonding, an evolutionary adaptation for long-term care of helpless infants.


Science and aesthetics are complementary, not conflicting

At the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, Paul J. Zak posits a relation between oxytocin, trust and economic well-being. "Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone, and we find that it guides subjects' decisions even when they are unable to articulate why they are acting in a trusting or trustworthy matter," Zak explained to me. He argues that trust is among the most powerful factors affecting economic growth and that it is vital for national prosperity for a country to maximize positive social interactions among its members by ensuring a reliable infrastructure, a stable economy, and the freedom to speak, associate and trade.

We establish trust among strangers through verification in social interactions. James K. Rilling and his colleagues at Emory University, for instance, employed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan on 36 subjects while they played Prisoner's Dilemma. In the game, cooperation and defection result in differing payoffs depending on what the other participants do. The researchers found that in cooperators the brain areas that lit up were the same regions activated in response to such stimuli as desserts, money, cocaine and beautiful faces. Specifically, the neurons most responsive were those rich in dopamine (the lust liquor that is also related to addictive behaviors), located in the anteroventral striatum in the middle of the brain--the so-called pleasure center. Tellingly, cooperative subjects reported increased feelings of trust toward, and camaraderie with, like-minded partners.

In Charles Darwin's "M Notebook," in which he began outlining his theory of evolution, he penned this musing: "He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke." Science now reveals that love is addictive, trust is gratifying and cooperation feels good. Evolution produced this reward system because it increased the survival of members of our social primate species. He who understands Darwin would do more toward political philosophy than Jefferson.

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