Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
The tiny swimmers appear to transmit signals that "persuade" the female body to have a baby.
The following article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
New research suggests that sperm play a bigger role in pregnancy than previously believed, not only fertilizing the egg, but also "persuading" the female body to accept it.
Revisiting sex ed: Human reproduction typically starts with sperm traveling via seminal fluid to an egg and fertilizing it. That creates a zygote, which can then attach to the wall of the uterus and begin the process of developing into a baby.
Implantation isn't a given, though. The woman's immune system may reject the fertilized egg as something "foreign" and prevent her from becoming pregnant.
Persuasive swimmers: Past research has shown that seminal fluid contains proteins that dampen this immune response, encouraging the woman's body to accept the zygote and the pregnancy.
Now, researchers at the University of Adelaide have discovered that sperm send their own signals designed to persuade the woman's body.
"This overturns our current understanding of what sperm are capable of," project leader Sarah Robertson said in a press release. "They are not just carriers of genetic material, but also agents for convincing the female to invest reproductive resources with that male."
The study: For a new study, female mice were mated with males who produced sperm and males who'd been vasectomized (meaning they produced seminal fluid without sperm).
Based on changes in the expression of different genes in the females' uteruses, the researchers determined that the sperm-producing mice prompted a stronger immune tolerance in their mates than the vasectomized rodents.
By introducing male sperm to female cells in the lab, the researchers were able to confirm that the sperm was directly responsible for the changes.
Why it matters: Infertility is a common issue, affecting tens of millions of couples across the globe, and problems such as recurrent miscarriage, preeclampsia, and stillbirth have all been linked to the female immune response during reproduction.
Now that we know that sperm can affect that immune response, researchers may be able to identify new ways to treat infertility — potentially helping some couples conceive and give birth to healthy babies.
Freethink would love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at email@example.com.
How our fantasy world of the past has become everyday reality.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink. Freethink has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast, to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
Jason Feifer, Entrepreneur Magazine Editor-in-Chief and host of the Build for Tomorrow podcast, has a fun hobby: he combs through newspaper archives to discover how people who lived 100 years ago envisioned life in the 21st century.
One pipe dream of yore: climate-controlled housing.
We, mere commoners of today, live better than the royalty of the past.
"When heating is done all electrically, and I want 70 degrees in my home, I shall set the thermostat at 70 and the temperature will not rise above that point. This temperature will be maintained uniformly regardless of the weather outside," predicted Charles Steinmetz from 1921, an electrical engineer in Schenectady (who apparently went by the enviable nickname "Forger of Thunderbolts").
And that's only looking at life 100 years ago, a blip in the full scope of human life. When you rewind further, Feifer explains, you realize just how much amazing stuff populates our everyday life.
"We live in a fantasy world, and we barely pause to appreciate it," Feifer says.
Here are 5 ways that we, mere commoners of today, live better than the royalty of the past.
1. Royal Purple
You may already know that purple was a royal color — but do you know why?
For starters, purple was exceptionally expensive because of what it took to make it: it had to be distilled from the dehydrated mucous glands that lie just behind the rectum of a particular snail. Per the BBC:
"It took tens of thousands of desiccated hypobranchial glands, wrenched from the calcified coils of spiny murex sea snails before being dried and boiled, to colour even a single small swatch of fabric, whose fibres, long after staining, retained the stench of the invertebrate's marine excretions."
Adding insult to olfactory injury, these snails had to be imported to Europe from Lebanon (the name "Tyrian purple" refers to Tyre, Lebanon).
Then, of course, there was the law — it was illegal for commoners to wear purple. Only royals could wear it.
"In the 11th and 12th Centuries, Europe begins to develop dense urban spaces as we'd recognize them today. And this creates a social problem," Feifer says.
"Suddenly you need a way of distinguishing who the different people are in the city ... A serf had to wear the clothing of a serf. Lords had to wear the clothing of a lord. Everyone is identifiable, so you're never able to pass as someone you're not."
2. Peace and quiet... and private sex
The next time you curl up in bed to read a book in private (wearing purple for good measure), be sure to remind yourself of your royal stature...at least compared to Europe in the Middle Ages.
"For most people in the middle ages, the concept of personal space just literally didn't exist," Feifer says.
"You worked and ate and lived squished up against other people. And at night, entire families would share a bed. Sometimes, strangers or travelers would hop in bed with them too, to keep warm. This wasn't weird for them. It's just... how it was."
Royal sex required a witness.
In fact, Feifer explains, the privacy we experience during intimate moments was a luxury even royalty weren't afforded.
In societies where family lineage determines who rules the land, proving lineage is of the utmost importance. But since DNA tests were many centuries away, proving that the man and woman in question were the true parents required a...notary, of sorts.
"When you're royalty, sex is not just sex — it is an official act of extending the royal bloodline, which is a matter of the state," Feifer says. "So it must be...confirmed. This meant that royal sex required a witness."
Speaking of privacy, yet another way that we have it better than royals of yesterday is our bathrooms — thanks to modern plumbing, many of us can safely assume nobody can watch us do our business.
"If you're in the aristocracy, living in a castle, what we would call the toilet or the bathroom or the water closet, it's called the garter robe," Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at the University of Louisville, explains on the podcast.
"And basically what it is, is a hole ... that goes outside the castle, so that you would sit on this hole and do your business. And it would literally drip down the side of the castle."
Royals may have had to suffer the injustice of possibly being spotted doing their business high in their castles, but what about common folk? The premise is similar, but much more...down to earth. Fortunately, the engineers of their day figured out an important hack.
"In medieval cities, the second floor of a house would jut out onto the street. This was for two reasons — one, because it enabled them to build wider streets, which was useful because streets could be crowded places full of animals," Feifer says.
"But two, because that way, people could walk underneath these overhanging second floors."
If these people happened to walk too close to the edge of these overhangs, Rabin explains, they risked ending up with "a surprising new way of styling (their) hair."
But even when their hair stayed urine-and feces-free, they were still affronted by a panoply of scents from the street — a potent blend of human and animal excrement and body odors. Rabin says it's a misconception that people in the Middle Ages didn't bathe — they did bathe, it just didn't do all that much to mitigate the onslaught of noxious smells.
Royals were lucky to have access to perfume, but the same can't be said of all those in their employ. So take a deep breath and rest assured that what you smell is the stuff of dreams to medieval royalty.
Literacy is one thing, but in England at the turn of the last millennium, a commoner wasn't even allowed to speak the same language as their rulers.
"Following the Norman conquest of 1066, when various groups from France invaded and occupied England, the ruling class in England spoke a language called Norman French," Feifer said.
"In fact, several generations of rulers would pass before any of them could speak the language of their people. You know Richard the Lionhart, aka Richard the First of England, who shows up in countless movies like King of Heaven, and is portrayed with an English accent? Nah. He didn't speak English."
The average person wasn't likely to have an occasion to speak to the King anyway, but the implications of this differentiation between royals and common people extended into legal affairs. This remained true even after Norman French was a distant memory.
"Even after the monarchy and the court had abandoned French and were speaking English, if you were a barrister, if you were a lawyer, you still had to learn how to speak this 'Law French,'" Rabin said.
So, in this sense, all you need to do to live like royalty today is speak the same language as your elected leader and be able to read a legal document (even if the text itself might feel more like Law French than English).
The final way to live like a royal is to indulge your sweet tooth.
"Sugar cane is a modern invention. Sugar beets: modern invention. Corn syrup: modern invention — and it takes a lot of factory processing to get that sweetness," says Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture, and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, in the episode.
"Sugar in the ancient world was from fruit. If you had access to fruit ... and if you juiced it...you could get sugar. But it was a hard thing to get your hands on."
Like the color purple, sugar was rare because it was hard to procure and to make. Modern society has managed to flip the script.
"Back then, consuming sugar was a sign of status," Cooney says, "Now, thousands of years later, industrial sugar is one of the cheapest substances available. So the marker of status has flipped."
The next time you treat yourself to your favorite dessert, enjoy it as the royal delight it really is.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink. Freethink would love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.