The Chemistry Between Us: A Q&A with Larry Young and Brian Alexander
What is this thing called love? I took my own stab at understanding the neurobiological circuits underlying love and sex with my own book, DIRTY MINDS: HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS. But now, Emory University’s Larry Young, arguably one of the most prolific researchers in the social neuroscience realm, has partnered with journalist Brian Alexander to offer his own take on humanity’s most delightful, tormenting and confusing drive. In THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN US: LOVE, SEX AND THE SCIENCE OF ATTRACTION, the two don’t shy away from making some strong hypotheses about the nature of love–and the brain’s role in it. Here, they discuss the inspiration for the book, fetishes, the evolution of relationships, and why a little natural oxytocin stimulation can help make relationships better.
Q: What was the inspiration for THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN US?
Larry Young: From my side, I wrote this essay for Nature back in 2009 where I talked about my work in terms of human qualities like love, which I had not really done before. The essay got a lot of attention from people who were interested in what we were learning. And I read a story that Brian had written about that essay and I really loved his writing style, humor and the way he was able to take the science and put it in a way the public could understand. So I actually contacted him with the idea that maybe we could write a book together.
Brian Alexander: I’m blushing.
After talking with Larry, I went to Atlanta and learned more about how his work translates into the context of people. And while I’ve been writing about some of this stuff for years, I’d never thought about it in a global scientific way. I was absolutely blown away by it.
Q: What blew you away, exactly?
Brian Alexander: I hate to call it a “Eureka” moment because that sounds so cliche. But Larry’s theories made total sense to me. In my last book, AMERICA UNZIPPED, I met a lot of people who were into fetish and I kept asking myself, “Why are they so into that kind of behavior? What makes them go for that?” I never understood it, I never could make a good connection. Was it some kind of Freudian thing? But when Larry took me through the science, a light bulb went off. I said, “Oh, I totally get it now.” And I was super excited about it. I’m still super excited about it.
Q: So does a pair-bond in prairie voles really equate to human love?
Larry Young: We don’t know for sure. We talked about what we know happens in prairie wolves and then we speculate that the same kind of thing may be happening in humans. You know there is some evidence of that. Like, for example, new studies show that the oxytocin receptor polymorphism in humans predicts female relationship quality. And the vasopressin polymorphism predicts male relationship quality.
We’ll never know in humans, at least to the precision that we know in animals, what these molecules are doing. But the evidence suggests that they are working in the same ways.
Brian Alexander: And it’s not just the voles. We also discuss primates and fish. These kinds of things seem to be happening across evolution.
Larry Young: Right. Across evolution and also across behavior. For example, maternal behaviors are evolutionary ancient. It’s been there forever in all species. And we see that oxytocin plays a really important role. To me, it just makes sense that it influences our urges and our emotions. And, for mothers, oxytocin influences their urges and emotions to focus their attention on the baby and make that baby the most special thing in their lives.
Q: Speaking of maternal behaviors, the book has some strong hypotheses. You argue that men’s big penises stimulate the cervix, releasing oxytocin and ultimately compelling women to “babysit” the men in their lives as they would their infants. What did you think the reaction would be to that?
Larry Young: We know it’s provocative. And the way you just said it sort of distilled it down to something that’s more provocative than what I think the reality is. The reality is, yes, I believe that kind of sexual stimulation evolved to maximally stimulate the same neurocircuits and neurochemicals that are involved in maternal behavior.
When a mother gives birth you have vaginal-cervical stimulation that causes oxytocin release. She focuses her attention on the baby. When she is nursing, there is oxytocin release, which, again, focuses her attention on her baby. When humans have sex, unlike all other species, you have both vaginal-cervical stimulation, and nipple stimulation, both of which maximally activate those maternal behavior circuits. Except now we don’t call them maternal behavior, they are more a sort of bonding. But it’s the same thing.
When you describe it in little soundbytes, it can be a shock. But when you really hear the science, it makes perfect sense.
Q: Many of your hypotheses fit nicely with self-help books about relationships like “The Rules.” How do you feel about your work being used by these kinds of authors to help perpetuate their relationship ideas?
Larry Young: From my perspective, I’m not going to try to project, or take my science and my understanding to try to guide people on how they should behave. And it sort of frightens me a little bit that people may be tempted to do that. I sort of put together my ideas as a scientist, my ideas of what’s going on in the brain that creates these behaviors.
I’m not going to try to tell other people what they should do. But in my own personal life I do try to do some things that might stimulate a little oxytocin release.
Brian Alexander: Flowers, Larry, flowers!
Larry Young: Some people talk about taking oxytocin intranasally to activate these systems. But I think there’s validity in the idea that you can engage in behaviors that induce your own natural oxytocin release. Hugs, gazing into each other’s eyes, sex. Those are the things that may help you maintain a relationship–and make it better.
Q: So it’s been a few years since you wrote that Nature essay. Is there anything that you would add or change if you were being asked to write it now?
Larry Young: I don’t think there is anything in there that I would necessarily change. But I think I would be able to add a few more things now based on the work that’s been done in a number of other labs. For example, the genetic work that was done in human females with the polymorphisms in oxytocin receptor.
There is even more evidence today that things like oxytocin are doing the same things in humans as they are doing in animals. The parallels are even more impressive. It’s pretty striking.