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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.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.