Big Think Interview With David Schnarch

Topic: Sex and marriage

David Schnarch: The way that the human race has evolved, it is virtually guaranteed that sex is going to die in emotionally committed relationships, and you can either bail out or tell yourself you picked the wrong person, and if you just found the right person they'd love all your flaws, and no matter what you did they'd just think that you're the bee's knees. And that's the picture most of us have -- we're supposed to have -- in childhood. But that's not marriage. Marriage -- people get fed up with you leaving your socks on the floor and having all your little habits. And they get tired of telling you that you're wonderful and propping you up, and they want you to stand on your own two feet and be a whole man or be a whole woman. And we usually get angry about that kind of stuff. It doesn't fit our picture, you know. We sort of have the picture of while we're single I have to take care of myself; once I get married you have to take me any old way I am. That's known as loving me. And one of the things sex and marriage and intimacy will teach you is, love is not accepting you any old way you are.

When people get married, you get married for better and worse, in sickness and in health, but that's not an excuse to screw off, get sloppy, get fat and not take care of yourself and not be an interesting person. So sex invariably dies. And we move on to your next question. That's really the answer to why sex dies. All around the world, where rape is not allowed, and women are allowed control of their own body, all around the world from time immemorial it is the low-desire partner that always controls sex. Now, you might think God's passive aggressive, or Mother Nature has a sense of humor. Maybe what she should have done is made the person who wants sex the most the person in charge, and the high-desire partner says, let's have sex, and the low-desire partner says, aye-aye, sir -- just -- whatever you say, that's what goes. And it doesn't work that way.

So what happens is, most of us are going through the struggle of "I want to be with you, but don't tell me what to do." And because the low-desire partner controls sex, when the high-desire partner says, let's have sex, and the low-desire partner says, well, I'm not so sure, and the high-desire partner says, well, then you don't love me enough, that's the end of sex. When it gets to be proved that you love me, do it my way. And the high-desire partner says, well, why do we always have to do it your way? And the low-desire partner says, well, why do we always have to do it your way? You are now in the middle of what happens to all of us, that none of us ever anticipate. You are in the middle of the wars of self-development, and that's what marriage is about.

Marriage is about growing up and getting to the point where you can love somebody on life's terms. And in the middle of that, sex dies. And couples go through, very often, months or years of not having sex, which nobody who is 18 years old ever believes. You get married because you can have sex all the time; you're even living with them; they're very convenient. And that's not the way that it works. So what we're really describing is what made the human brain evolve, where the low-desire partner controls sex, the high-desire partner doesn't like that, and the high-desire partner has to learn to control themselves because when the high-desire partner says, "You know what? You're just as controlling as your mother," that basically does not usually inspire high-desire or lubrication in your partner. So you have to learn to control yourself. This also teaches you to be considerate of your partner and not act like they belonged to you. And getting over the idea that your partner doesn't belong to you is a tough one. It sounds great when you first get married: we belong to each other. But that's as good as long as you're cutting the cake. Two years in, when your partner acts like your genitalia belongs to them, believe me, it does not inspire passion.

And when you go through the way that marriage really works, which beats out of you the idea that your partner either belongs to you or is always supposed to put your needs first, then you become a solid enough person, you earn your own self-respect, you earn each other's self-respect. That's what ignites passion. Self-respect is one of the best aphrodisiacs there is, but that's not what you get when you're first in the mad, passionately-in-love-with-each-other stage.

Question: Are women always the low-desire partner?

David Schnarch: No, that's the stereotype. The stereotype is always the guy can't get enough, and the woman wants to know why he wants it all the time. And that's the stereotype, but in half the couples that we see the man is the low-desire partner. And if you think it's tough being part of the stereotype, where you're the put-upon woman or you are the sex-starved man, you ought to see what happens to couples where it's the woman who can't get enough and it's the guy that feels like he's being chased around, being pushed for sex, where both the man and the woman think it's the guy that's supposed to be making all the approaches. And so you're not only having sex; you're also going against conventional stereotypes. And that happens to about half the couples. In half the couples it's the woman that really wants more sex than the guy does. You just never hear about them because they're both so embarrassed about the roles that they're in.

But also what's problematic about this picture about men and women falling into these typical roles, it doesn't deal with the same-sex couples. And it turns out you can take two women and put them together, or two guys and put them together, and in two years they look straight in the sense of they're not having sex either. So even when you take two women and put them together, you would think, well, they wouldn’t have that problem, right? They have the same temperament and they have the same biology, and the answer is wrong. You take same-sex couples, you put them together; even if they started out at the same level of arousal and desire, two years in, one of them is the high-desire partner, one of them is the low-desire partner.

And you realize what we're talking about transcends sexual orientation. It transcends culture, religion and even time and place in history, because if you look at the earliest recorded history, people were bitching about the high desire/low desire problem even then. It's what's made people go out and look for aphrodisiacs. That's the attempt to overpower the system, and you won't make it. There's no aphrodisiac that will make your partner have sex with you when they don't like you.

Lots of couples start out at the same level, but within two years it gets polarized. And I'm picking two years; for some couples it is six months. For some couples it's as soon as they move in together. And yes, on most issues in a marriage there's always a low-desire partner and a high-desire partner. So for instance, you could be the low-desire partner to have sex and the high-desire partner to have a baby.

And also it's not uncommon for people to switch roles. So for instance, I mentioned that in about half the couples the woman is the high-desire partner. I've seen a number of couples where they start out -- the woman is the high-desire partner; she's been a good girl; she figured, you know, I'll wait until I get into this committed relationship, and then I'll let it all hang out. And she's ready to go. And lo and behold, she turns out to be partnered with a guy that doesn't want it as long or as frequently as she does, and she becomes the low-desire partner with a vengeance. So people very often switch roles. So the person who starts out to be the high-desire partner may end up being the low-desire partner at a later point in the relationship.

And what it points out is, we're not talking about childhood or personality. So for instance, let's say you like to have sex three times a week, and in your first relationship you're partnered with someone who wants sex five times a week. Well, you want it three times a week, and you're the low-desire partner. You get divorced, you partner up with somebody who wants it once a week. You still only want it three times a week; that hasn't changed, but now you're the high-desire partner. So high-desire partner and low-desire partner, we're not talking about absolute frequency; it's positions in a relationship. And there is a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner on virtually every issue, whether it's having sex, or having sex with your eyes opened or closed, or having a baby, or having your spouse's mother-in-law move in with you, or switching careers, or making more money -- there is usually a high-desire partner and a low-desire partner. And on many, many issues in marriage, in what you're interested is collaboration, the low-desire partner runs the show.

Recorded on October 29, 2009

 

 

 

A conversation with the marital therapist and author of Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire.

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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