Monday’s Los Angeles Times carried a long feature, “This is Your Brain on Love,” about neurological explanations of sexual attraction and desire. It’s the type of health-section story that really irks me: no concrete or useful science, and few helpful insights into human behavior - just an evergreen subject that lends itself to showy, but often trite writing.
What prodded me into mentioning this story, however, is that it strikes me as the lesser clone of a science-of-sex feature by Natalie Angiers that ran in The New York Times in April. Angiers has a timelier peg, about recent findings that sexual arousal precedes the perception of desire (scientists used to think it was the other way around), while Susan Brink, in Los Angeles, sticks to a more mundane conversation about serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and other neurotransmitters linked to desire. Also, although I’ve previously criticized Angiers for floral prose, she pulls it off better than Brink in this case.
Other than that, the east and west coast iterations of the what-makes-us-horny story are distressingly similar in length, structure, angle and tone. Both Angiers and Brink start with whimsical ledes about how people describe the sensation of recognizing a possible mate. Then come similar nutgraphs that characterize “sexology” as emotionally wrought field of study with many unturned corners:
Angiers: “For researchers in the field of human sexuality, the wide variance in how people characterize sexual desire and describe its most salient features is a source of challenge and opportunity, pleasure and pain.”
Brink: “It’s a dance that holds many mysteries, to psychologists as well as to the willing participants. Science is just beginning to parse the inner workings of the brain in love, examining the blissful or ruinous fall from a medley of perspectives: neural systems, chemical messengers and the biology of reward.”
Both reporters then go through the motions of parsing a variety of studies, some of which are intriguing. Brink has an anecdote about an old study (from 2000), which found that men who met a pretty woman on a dangerously scenic suspension bridge were much more likely to call her than men who met her on a common and stable bridge. Angiers digs up slightly more hard-hitting research, but most of the studies that she and Brink write about still fall short of providing useful insights (beyond common sense) or concrete science about what makes lovers tick.
Both Brink and Angiers conclude their pieces whimsical one-liners about how, despite all the mysteries and complications of love and desire, relationships work themselves out in the end:
Angiers: “Together, they walk then line.”
Brink: “Oh, what a ride.”
Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.
Now, here’s my one-liner: Blech! The only thing wishy-washier than an article about the science of love is the asexual clone of an article about the science of love.