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The Brain Has 3 Systems for Mating — Combined, They Promote Adultery

Even though adultery is punishable by death in some societies, it still occurs regularly. This tells Dr. Helen Fisher there is probably a genetic predisposition toward cheating on your partner.

Helen Fisher: Everywhere you look in the world people are adulterers, even where you can get your head chopped off for it or stoned. That means that it probably has some biological predisposition. There’s all kinds of cultural reasons that people are adulterers. If you ask a person why they’re adulterers they may say, "Well I get lonely when my partner is out of town; I want to solve a sex problem; I’d like to have more sex; I’d like to get caught and patch up my marriage; I’d like to get caught and end my marriage; I’d like to supplement my marriage." But scientists are beginning to find out some biological predispositions. A predisposition doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to be adulterous. I mean, you can have a predisposition to alcohol and give up drinking.

And there’s some things about the brain that seem to predispose some people to adultery. One of them is a set of genes or a gene, we’re not quite sure which, in the vasopressin system. And there was a wonderful study out of Sweden. They studied a gene in the vasopressin among 552 men. Some men had no copies of the gene, some had one copy of the gene and some had two copies of the gene. And the more copies of this gene you had, the less stable your primary relationship was. They were not studying adultery but they were studying the stability of a partnership which can certainly lead to adultery that’s unstable. There’s also some genes in the immune system that seem to play a role in adultery. We tend to be drawn to people who have a different set of genes in this part of the immune system and, in fact, when the data show that when you are with a partner who is very similar to you in this part of the immune system women particularly are more likely to be adulterers and more likely to be adulterers when they’re ovulating, when they’re more likely to get pregnant.

I think we’ve evolved these three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction – sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love and feelings of deep attachment. They’re often connected to each other. You can fall in love with somebody, drives up the dopamine system, triggers the testosterone system and all of a sudden they’re the sexiest person in the whole world. But they’re not always well connected. You can lie in bed at night and feel deep attachment for one person and then swing wildly into feelings of intense romantic love for somebody else and then swing wildly into feeling the sex drive for somebody who you barely ever met.

Which made me wonder whether millions of years ago there was something adaptive about having a partnership with one person and raising your babies and having extra relationships with other people. And it’s actually relatively easy to explain. Let’s dial back a million years. You’ve got a man who’s got a wife, a partnership, and two children. And he occasionally goes over the hill and sleeps with another woman and has two children, extra children, with her. He’s doubled the amount of DNA he has spread into the next generation. Those children will live and pass on whatever it is in him, some of the genetics, some of the brain circuitry to be predisposed to adultery.

But why would a woman be adulterous? A lot of people think that they’re not as adulterous but every time there’s a man sleeping around he’s generally sleeping around with a woman so you’ve got to explain women too. What would a woman have gotten if she’s had a partner a million years ago and two children. She slips over the hill and has sex with another man. Well she’ll get extra goods and resources and extra meat, extra protection. If her husband gets injured and dies one of these extra lovers might come in and help her with her children, even think some of those children are his. It’s an insurance policy. And she may even have an extra child and create more genetic variety in her lineage.

So the bottom line is for millions of years there were some reproductive payoffs not only to forming a pair bond but also to adultery, leaving each one of us with a tremendous drive to fall in love and pair up but also some susceptibility to cheating on the side.

Even though adultery is punishable by death in some societies, it still occurs regularly. This tells Dr. Helen Fisher there is probably a genetic predisposition toward cheating on your partner. Of course not everyone cheats, so it's not necessary for survival, but if we dial back ten thousand years, to a time when resources were more scarce, adultery would have helped genes survive the present generation and be passed onto the next. That gives a clear rational for men's desire to cheat, but what about women? Fisher offers several explanations...

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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