Monthly Archives: May 2017

Know More About Seinfeld and Love

When using pop culture as a reference for relationships, people may assume that Seinfeld is a poor choice. After all, the foursome used nearly any excuse to end their relationships with significant others, ranging from being a low talker to having “man hands.” However, I find the show to be extremely useful in illustrating an interesting point regarding interpersonal attraction — that of similarity between partners. But, before the show, let’s touch on the science.

The Science

Research has shown that we like others who are similar to ourselves (Byrne, 1961). In fact, research conducted at MIT, which examined the contacts made between people of different demographics on an online dating site, demonstrated that users opted for similarity (Fiore & Donath, 2005). However, when this similarity hits too close to home, it may actually dampen arousal and become problematic.

The idea that opposites attract is a common misconception. Instead, birds of a feather flock together. We choose people who are similar to ourselves, especially when it comes to our values, beliefs, and morals. The principle by which we choose similar others to affiliate with can be illustrated nicely by assortative mating. Assortative mating involves the nonrandom coupling of individuals who resemble one another on one or more characteristics (Buss, 1984; Watson, Beer, & McDade-Montez, 2013).

Beyond interests, recent research demonstrates that we also prefer people who look like us. Yes, look like us.

In a 2010 study by Fraley and Marks, a series of experiments was conducted to examine peoples’ ratings of another’s attractiveness and whether or not our aversion to those genetically related to us is conscious. The researchers investigated if we have a bias toward those who are similar to us, but reject this inclination once we are made aware of the physical similarity.

In the first of their series of studies, participants were either subliminally presented with a picture of their opposite-sex parent or a stranger. After the presentation of one of the faces, participants were shown another stranger and were told to rate his/her attractiveness. Those subliminally presented with their opposite-sex parent, rated the stranger as more attractive than those subliminally presented with a stranger. Therefore, the participants were primed by a relative, someone who looks similar to themselves, and this made them rate the picture of the new individual as more attractive. In the second experiment, a stranger’s face was either morphed with another stranger or a picture of the subject’s own face. Subjects rated the image morphed with their own face as more sexually attractive, again showing a bias for people like ourselves.

The Show

So how does this relate to my favorite 90s sitcom? In the famous episode where Jerry meets Janeane Garofalo’s character, Jeannie Steinmann, a woman who both looks like and acts like Seinfeld, the two instantly fall in love. He quickly proposes to her making good on the pact he made with George to get engaged. All seems well, until Jerry becomes cognizant that they are just too similar. In a span of one episode he goes from declaring that he wanted someone just like himself to saying that he hates himself and wants someone completely opposite.

Know The Key to Have a Lasting Relationship

Is sex the key to a lasting relationship? It appears to be the case, according to some new research, but the full picture is complicated, and the findings raise an obvious question: What enables and sustains a couple’s long-term romantic and sexual connection to begin with?

Let’s take a look.

This study focused on recently married couples, and found links between frequency of sex and its positive impact on the relationship over time. (Previous research has also found a similar effect among older couples.) Needless to say, if both partners enjoy sex, per se, and presumably with each other, then yes, that’s likely to enhance their relationship satisfaction. But what enables that desire, in itself? We know that long-term relationships often head south over time: Diminished energy and intimacy in your relationship inevitably affects you and your partner’s sexual connection. That is, the state of your relationship will follow you into the bedroom.

So, just having sex, in the absence of a thriving relationship, is unlikely to be very pleasurable, nor will it translate into increased marital satisfaction over time; actually, it could diminish it. Mental health professionals who’ve worked with relationship issues recognize that from our patients’ experiences in therapy. True, some couples try to smooth over a flatlined or troubled relationship by trying to just have sex anyway, or by having “make-up sex” or even “angry sex” after a fight. Other couples look to recharge their sexual relationship by turning to the latest techniques or suggestions from books, workshops, or the media.

These are understandable but misguided efforts, and they reflect a broader problem: We absorb very skewed notions about sexual needs, behavior, and romantic relationships as we grow up. (I described some of the dysfunctions that result in an earlier post about the differences between “hook-up sex,” “marital sex,” and “making love.”)

But in contrast, couples’ actual experiences and some empirical research show what partners do when they are successful at sustaining positive connection, emotionally and sexually. In essence, they build and live an integrated relationship, one that combines transparency in communication, conscious mutuality in decision-making, and a commitment to create conditions for maintaining erotic energy in their physical/sexual life.

The key role these habits play becomes more evident when looking at the actual findings from the study of recently married couples. Conducted by Florida State University and published in Psychological Science, it looked at whether frequent sex might not only sustain partners’ positive connection between periods of sexual activity, but might also strengthen their long-term relationship satisfaction.

The researchers found that a single act of sex produced an “afterglow” for couples that lasted for about two days. More significantly, couples experiencing a stronger afterglow reported greater marital satisfaction four-to-six months later compared with those who reported a weaker afterglow.

According to lead author Andrea Meltzer, “Our research shows that sexual satisfaction remains elevated 48 hours after sex, and people with a stronger sexual afterglow — that is, people who report a higher level of sexual satisfaction 48 hours after sex — report higher levels of relationship satisfaction several months later.” The research was based on data from two independent, longitudinal studies of 214 couples, and is described in detail in the journal’s news release.

But the study also found that some couples didn’t experience much “afterglow” at all after sex. More significantly, all couples’ marital satisfaction declined between the beginning of the study and its follow-up, four-to-six months later — although those who reported higher initial satisfaction experienced less decline.

So decline occurred over time, regardless of the degree of “afterglow.” Actually, that’s pretty consistent with what most long-term couples experience — and lament. When your relationship declines, it affects your sex life. The researchers’ conclusion that “sex functions to keep couples pair-bonded” overlooks this reality: No sexual technique or efforts to re-energize passion will help much when your relationship’s vitality is ebbing away.

Know Your Brain When Falling in Love

What happens when we fall in love? It’s an age-old question for poets and
philosophers, and a newer one for neuroscientists. We have pictures of people’s brains after the fact, when certain areas light up in response to a photograph of a loved one. But researchers at Emory University’s Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition wanted to know what happens before that, in the “getting to know you” phase.

Now, in a first-of-its-kind study published in Nature this week, they reveal what they found — a connection in which one part of a female’s brain tells another part of her brain that maybe that guy over there is the one. Beyond giving us insight into our romantic responses, the results might eventually be used to help those with impaired social abilities, such as people with autism spectrum disorder.

A caveat: This study was done in prairie voles. But don’t scoff; the rodents are well-known in scientific circles for their long-term, devoted, monogamous relationships, a.k.a. “pair bonds.” They provide a useful — or “beautiful,” in the words of one of the paper’s authors — model for looking at what happens in the brain when two individuals connect. And this kind of study isn’t possible in people. “Technically and logistically, it would be hard to design an experiment in humans to track how somebody falls in love,” says Robert Liu, a computational neuroscientist in Emory’s Biology Department and a senior author of the paper. The study also tells us nothing about the process of choosing one mate over another; these prairie voles had arranged marriages.

What the scientists were able to do was watch what happened inside a female’s brain in real time after they put her in a cage with a male — “cohabitation,” or the rodent version of living together — and they interacted and began to bond. Prairie voles interested in bonding move closer and closer to each other and eventually engage in a behavior called “side by side huddling,” which Liu calls “an expression of the bond that’s being formed … it’s something that emerges over time.”

Liu and his colleagues were watching two brain areas — the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive function and decision making, and the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward and addiction. They took electrophysiological recordings of those two areas as well as video of the voles’ behavior for the six hours of the experiment. They found that the medial prefrontal cortex exerted a certain amount of control over the nucleus accumbens. The connectivity between these areas suggests one is telling the other how to respond to social cues — to find them attractive. “We learn to appreciate the smells, or the voice, or how our partner looks,” Liu says. “Presumably that’s all through some way of making those cues more rewarding to us. Perhaps that’s what we’re getting a glimpse of.” Since humans have a similar circuit, albeit with a lot “more territory,” Liu says the same thing may well be happening in us.

Intriguingly, a baseline conversation between these two brain areas was going on before the females met the males — and there were noticeable differences in how active the circuit was across individuals. “What was really surprising was that the level of activation was predictive of how quickly the animal would become affiliative,” Liu says. This would seem to hint at why some individuals fall in love so easily, and others are more resistant.

What about sex? That was also surprising. In prairie voles, mating does not necessarily lead to a pair bond; it’s the huddling that really matters. But when the animals have their first mating bout, sex can accelerate bonding. Some animals showed more change in the level of functional connectivity between the two brain areas than others did. The degree of change was also predictive. “If you get a bigger boost coming out of that mating bout, you’ll start to huddle more quickly,” says Liu. Enough said.

Finally, the scientists used the innovative technique of optogenetics, in which they stimulate specific brain areas with light to doublecheck their results. They put voles together in a way that would not normally lead to bonding (shorter time, no sex). In animals who’d had this circuit stimulated, even that hint of a possible relationship was enough to trigger bonding behavior. In unstimulated animals, it didn’t.

This last result is what leads to the speculation that someday this circuit could be stimulated in people who have difficulty developing social bonds. Optogenetics is most likely too invasive for humans for the foreseeable future. Liu suggests, however, that some brain stimulation techniques that are already in use in people, like transcranial magnetic stimulation, might work eventually, if they could be refined to target a more specific area of the brain. “That might be one way to enhance social function by making social cues more rewarding,” Liu says.

Meanwhile, perhaps the rest of us should be a little more appreciative of huddling.