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  • Sex Cult: Singing the Praises of Chemistry

    February 14, 2012
    Sex Cult: Singing the Praises of Chemistry
    So, just what is it that causes that excited, gnawing, obsessive feeling we get when we’re “hopelessly in love,” huh? And why does it feel so bad when we fall out of it?

    Put your favorite song on.

    Go on. I can wait. Open your iTunes or equivalent and pull up the playlist that brightens your whole demeanor the moment you see it. What’s on it? Bach? Stevie Wonder? Cole Porter? Katy Perry? Whatever your choice, it’s commonly understood that a tune can change our mood more quickly than a shot of tequila or the clouds covering the sun. The music we love can make us feel lighter, happier, more energetic, more motivated, distanced from the drudgery of the day. It’s feels a little like the giddiness of love.

    Actually, it’s a lot like the giddiness of love.

    Researchers at Montreal’s McGill University found that music stimulates the release of dopamine and can cause “euphoria and craving” and the dopamine-producing areas of the brains were the ones that lit up when people undergoing brain scans saw photos of their beloved, chronicled in the now-famous work of Dr. Helen Fisher and her team in “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

    So love and music involve high levels of the same chemical, making it no surprise that we go into a bit of an altered state when we hear certain tunes, say “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” What a prescient lyric that turned out to be, huh? The people we crave are under our skin, literally in our chemistry, the drips and drops of hormone and neurotransmitter that give us the warm fuzzies or emotional hunger pangs we get just thinking about that one special face.

    That doesn’t mean we get to blame our behavior on this drug we involuntarily take (damn!) but it helps to know when you’re in deep that you’re not just a mad, flawed sap with no more self control than a hungry honey-badger. It’s just part of how love works.

    In my book Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad (which everyone needs a copy of right away!), I interviewed people who had experienced its extremes. We’re talking clinical depression, attraction to family members, committing murder and – probably the most shocking – one person who lived happily ever after. I also looked at some of the psychology and chemistry of love, and it’s that chemistry I want to focus on today – on Valentine’s Day; especially dopamine.

    There are a number of chemicals involved in lasting love, like oxytocin and serotonin (bonding and feel-good hormones), but dopamine, part of our brain’s reward system, is what gives us that excitable infatuation. It’s craving, pleasure, sex, motivation, novelty and creativity. And as it increases so does testosterone, says Psychology Today’s Michael Castleman, so your sex drive soars in those initial stages. Awesome, right? Throw in some norepinephrine similar to adrenaline, and you have a racing heart, sweaty palms and sleeplessness. Creativity, novelty, sex, no sleep … sounds like the first week of liberal arts college! Spiffy!

    Which brings us to the problem with this awesome sounding mix.

    “We’ve found that when you’re rejected in love, parts of the brain associated with profound cocaine addiction are activated,” Dr. Fisher said about a 2010 study, which makes it understandable that it’s so hard to let go.

    “When a reward is delayed in coming, reward-expecting neurons in the reward system prolong their activity,” she wrote in that study (I interviewed her in “Crazy Little Thing,” FYI), so just when those expectations should drop they increase. That means the reason you can’t get someone out of your head is not because your skull is so thick. It’s because it’s hard. The way I see it, it’s the difference between someone who is motivated to get a job and someone who is motivated to keep a job. The hunger of someone with something to gain is no match for the hunger of someone with something to lose.

    The good news is that you can, given some time, come to your own rescue. You have an entirely highly evolved layer of brain called the neocortex, which means “new brain,” which means our human brain, which houses the ability to reason, feel empathy and control our impulses. By reasoning out, for example, the consequences of wallowing in self-pity over a break up we can start motivating ourselves to get past it – even if we’re not entirely over it. Once we start controlling our impulse to look back on the past we’re much more likely to see the future when it hits on us at a cocktail party.

    And then you can start this exhausting, miraculous BS all over again.

    Chemistry, though, is just a few layers of love’s complicated process. Our upbringing, psychology, physiology and cultural models all effect how we love.

    What does it matter? Does it serve a purpose to know what chemicals are zipping through us when we fall hopelessly in love? I think seeing love as chemistry does help – especially when love hurts – because it takes something highly personal and allows you to see it as biological, even if just a little bit.

    Women think nothing of citing PMS when they’re irritable. Yes, a woman momentarily bitches, but that doesn't make her a bitch. It’s a mutable state, not a character flaw. Trouble in love makes it so easy to see ourselves as weak or stupid when we can’t let go or have fallen for the human equivalent of the green potato chip … again. Seeing it as chemistry makes us able to recognize that it’s a mutable state. It is affecting us but it can and will change. And, as with PMS, recognizing it’s chemical nature can help us handle it more effectively.

    Proof of nature’s randomness is that if who we fell in love with was a conscious choice there would be almost no pop songs. We’d all be too calm and happy for all that warbling about painful loss, romantic regret or being unable to let go. But we all get it.

    Why?

    Because it’s under our skin.

    Consult your play list.

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  • I Love, Therefore I'm Nuts

    January 24, 2012
    I Love, Therefore I'm Nuts
    Andrew Shaffer gives us the skinny on the private lives of 37 philosophers, in Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, all full of various types of affairs, angst, desire, despair and scandal.

    Just a few weeks ago, in an interview commemorating his 70th birthday, a journalist from New Scientist magazine asked Professor Stephen Hawking what he thinks during the day.

    “Women,” Hawking said. “They’re a complete mystery.”

    One of the greatest minds of our time admitting to total bafflement by the opposite sex is less a revelation than a verification of what most of us already know: the heart and the brain are seldom, if ever, on speaking terms. How often have you said “What was I thinking?” after a bad romance… as though you weren’t there but instead hired a temp to get it up and running and by then it was really out of your hands. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” Blaise Pascal said, and Woody Allen (who would paraphrase that as “The heart has its reasons,”) wrapped the whole thing up neatly in Annie Hall with “Intellectuals prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on but on the other hand the body does not lie…”

    We’ve become smart enough to unclog, transplant and maintain our hearts but once they’re broken it takes something more than intelligence to bring them back.

    That’s a bit depressing, especially if you believed your parents when they (hopefully) dunned you into getting a good education… cleverly leaving out the fact that it wouldn’t help you one iota in matters of the heart (an omission you, not being as educated yet as you would become, failed to notice).

    On the bright side there is a great little book that might convince you that there’s an upside to not being the sharpest knife in the drawer (aside from George Bush’s bank book). The book is Andrew Shafffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, a compendium world-famous eggheads whose love lives stunk on ice… maybe not because of their intellects but most certainly in spite of them.

    I read about Shaffer’s book in Mental Floss (the print version) and was lucky to get my hands on it quickly. It gave me a nice big pillow of schadenfreude, letting me take comfort in the fact that even if I could become one of the world’s brain boxes it wouldn’t necessarily improve my chances of having a great, or even passable, personal life.

    Take, for example Friedrich Nietzsche, one existentialist famous for the declaring that “God is dead!” and vehement condemnation of religious sexual repression (not to mention a mustache that makes Ned Flanders’ look like John Waters’). Nietczhe was terribly unlucky in love; his marriage proposals to different women were repeatedly turned down and in the end he decided that marriage for him would be “asininity.” He had sex “on doctors orders,” orders which may have lead him to endure a bad case of syphilis for which he was treated but which caused him chronic health problems. Then there’s poor Henry David Thoreau, the “Walden” author, lover of and believer in the power of nature, whose most famous quote is likely that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He may well have been talking about himself, seeing as the one woman he believed to be the love of his life turned down his proposal (his neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, called Thoreau “ugly as sin”) and he may well have been quietly and desperately gay. “…even while he was in the forest Thoreau was in the closet,” Shaffer quotes columnist Nicholas Collias as saying of the author.

    French philosopher Jean-Jaques Rosseau is most famous for the striking quote “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” Speaking of chains and striking, Shaffer says that Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions, spoke of his interest in spanking, being dominated and he enjoyed exposing himself to women. Publicly, however, he proffered marriage as integral to a healthy society, though he had many affairs and abandoned all five of his own children…personally…to a foundling hospital, only marrying their mother afterwards and referring to her as his “housekeeper.”

    Shaffer gives us the skinny on the private lives of 37 philosophers, all full of various types of affairs, angst, desire, despair and scandal in nicely portioned bite-sized pieces, perfect for the short-attention span reader who likes to graze and jump around (as I do). He doesn’t go into much detail about their actual doctrines, probably assuming you’ll know who they are, but the ones with whom you’re unfamiliar are just as much fun to get cozy with. I, for example, had never heard of Louis Althusser, an influential 20th century Marxist who had a nervous breakdown after his first sexual experience and who later “accidentally” strangled his wife (he was “judged mentally unfit to stand trial”).

    There are, interestingly, only two women represented but those — Ayn Rand and Simone de Beauvoir have juicy stories to their credit, specifically de Beauvoir whose ties to another philosopher — Jean-Paul Sartre — is a heart-warming account of an open relationship. There are a number of religious figures including St. Augustine of Hippo, famous for saying “Lord, grant me chastity and continence…but not yet.”

    A saint offering up such a human dilemma as a prayer is the microcosmic reason Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, is so attractive. We think of philosophers as too dry and brainy to be effected by the messiness of love and sex but they’re not. No one is. And when it’s driving you nuts it’s comforting to know that it drives the smartest people in the world nuts, too. So don’t worry Professor Hawking, I won’t say that some things are better left a mystery because that’s clearly just defensive BS. I will say that sometimes the smartest thing to do is not try to figure it out. Just enjoy the piece of love while you have it….and enjoy the peace of mind when you don’t.

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  • SexCult: The Political Kama Sutra

    January 10, 2012
    SexCult: The Political Kama Sutra
    What if you merged politics and the Kama Sutra?

    Nothing pisses me off as much as positive thinking. I have to admit, though, that every once in awhile, when everything seems at it’s darkest, when you feel as though God has punk’d you something fierce, you can still find a scrap of good in is an otherwise squalid situation.

    For example, I recently had to give up my cable TV because I’m so poor I make the Little Match Girl look like Leona Helmsley. How I miss it! I pine away as though that idiot box were filled with people I knew who had died — everyone on HLN, my “Fashion Police,” and every robot, alien and human creature on Futurama. I miss them more than people I’ve actually met. I try watching on my laptop when the jones gets bad enough, but as a rule I end up with the empty feeling you get when you have sex with someone to get over someone else and it works for about a minute and then makes you even more keenly aware of what you’ve lost.

    Then I heard a story on NPR (at least the radio still works) about the money campaigners planned to spend on TV advertising in pre-primary Iowa and, from the bottom of my well of despair, I saw a teeny little ray of consolation: without TV, I realized, I’m only getting about one one-millionth of the tidal wave of Republican presidential who-cares coverage that I would be getting if I still had it (as a Democrat, the Republican primaries are of slightly less use to me than a mustache comb). It is a tiny speck of comfort, but I’m clinging to it like a conjoined twin.

    This doesn’t mean I’m entirely out of the loop or unaware of the loopy. As I write this, ferinstance, Michelle Bachman has just left the dance, Rick Santorum proved the sleeper hit of Iowa and Newt seems willing to figure out how topiggyback onto the successful Santorum, which sounds hilarious and is probably against Santorum’s moral views. As your SexFeed writer it’s my happy job to pan the river of news in order to bring you the most entertaining or important nuggets. So I see political news a-plenty, TV or no TV.

    Never mind, for a minute, that what I see is often enough to make Buddha want to punch someone in the face. When you’re looking at the news through the mindset of “Yeah, but where’s the sex?” even politics can be entertaining. Flipping through the Kama Sutra recently, as we all do when waiting for a slow-loading website (what, you don’t?), I was delighted to find that a lot of the names of the sexual positions had a slightly political ring to them.

    So here are some actual Kama Sutra position names, as taken from Anne Hooper’s Pocket Kama Sutra reimagined through the murky lens of a campaign year.

    The Yawning Position
    Stare at the ceiling while you’re partner just goes on and on forever, whispering sweet nothings that will probably amount to exactly that, pretending right up to the last second that everything is going just great then dropping out, limp and exhausted. See: “Primaries.”

    The Swing
    Group sex where everyone just dives in and gives it everything they’ve got. Exhausting but worth it. See: Swing state.

    The Pressing Position
    Saying, in the middle of a sex act, “Oh, I’m filming this by the way, is that okay?” so that it’s almost too late for the other person to withhold consent. See riders.

    The Suspended Congress
    When you pretend to be satisfied just so you can get some rest. See “Can’t you just get this done? It’s Christmas.

    The Supported Congress
    The joy euphoria a really good erection/election can cause which turns sour after it becomes clear that there’s no way for the reality to live up to the expectation.

    The Turning Position*
    Doing a 180 while in the act. True, there might be mitigating circumstances, like a bug on the sheets, but it’s kind of interesting to see where you start and where you end up.

    The Widely Opened Position
    When you and the other party approach each other with mutual trust and you work towards the happiest conclusion for everyone concerned, more interested in serving than being served. Have no idea what this looks like in politics.

    The Elephant Posture
    Position doesn’t matter, as long as whoever you’re screwing is broke.

    Cynical? You bet! This is what happens when I don’t get my USRDA of mayhem, alarmism and irritating commercials via the Boob Tube. I once had a friend tell me that “Sex is a misdemeanor because the more you miss, da meaner you get,” and I guess it’s also true of missing out on Dr. Who, Dr. Drew and South Park.

    But if it means side-stepping all the mudslinging, sniping and endless, pointless speculation I might happily remain abstinent from getting my TV back until November 8. Or later. Maybe even in December when the world is supposed to end. “Doomsday” might be the one moment that even the biggest TV hater can’t say “A thousand channels and nothing on.” * This is the only position for which the political description actually matches the physical one.

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  • Dating: Dealing with Crazy

    December 20, 2011
    Dating: Dealing with Crazy
    Passing around those sad or disturbing emails people receive after disastrous dating situations seems like it's all in good fun — but isn't it important to remember there's someone out there who perhaps needs some advice on how to accept rejection with grace, dignity and a little less sociopath-like decorum?

    Everyone hates dating.

    Sincerely. Who says “Oh, I love sitting across from a relative stranger while we silently appraise each other like potential runners-up at the Westminster Dog Show?” Malcolm Gladwell told us in “Blink,” that rapid cognition allows us to make most of our decisions in about two seconds. That, I believe, is true of our romantic assessments and I never understood my girlfriends who would go on dates, feel no sexual frisson and then, inexplicably, try again. Why? For the same reason they used to run a bell rope into a coffin in the 19th century — in case the thing isn’t quite dead?

    My dim views on the subject of romantic job interviewing darkened further last week when the story of 1615 word email made it’s way around the web: an investment banker named “Mike” went out on a date with a woman named “Lauren;” a date he thought was terrific but she thought was “horrific.” The International Business Times said Michael was calling Lauren “incessantly.” The Australian Telegraph gave Lauren’s brief backstory verbatim: 'Friend couldn’t make it to philharmonic at last minute so I went alone, met this guy, went on ONE, HORRIFIC date. Then got this...' the 1615 word email expressing Michael’s sadness, disappointment, confusion and clear inability to either accept or understand her unresponsiveness. If you actually go to Reddit, where the email is supposed to have been originally posted, it’s hard to tell whether Lauren is the original poster or someone ‘several degrees of separation’ was, or if the people’s real names were used.

    It’s a disturbing story on a number of levels, but the first to me was the fact that so many news outlets posted the email with what felt like snarky commentary about it’s craziness, making the whole web feel for about one second, like the shower scene in “Carrie.” Granted, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to receive this missive, and a girl freaking out and feeling threatened, especially considering the ease with which anyone can be stalked, is understandable. The media waving it around like a Mean Girl reading out of another girl’s diary felt unnecessary.

    Further investigation found reporting in The Frisky saying that this Mike — if he’s real — might be a strange kind of serial email harasser, having possibly authored similar lengthy letter to girl named Danielle some time ago — (one I found far and away more disturbing than the Lauren email; I’d have worried if I got it). That certainly makes one not want to minimize the danger of a potential stalker.

    On still further consideration, the Lauren email does have some disturbing elements, but it’s also full of words like “sad,” and “disappointed,” and obvious confusion on the writer’s part about social cues, i.e. citing eye contact as a textbook example of flirting when, in real human interaction, it can be variously interpreted. This suggests he might even have a disorder, like Asperger’s syndrome, or just genuinely does not get it. If a teenager had written this email and kids passed it around it would probably be considered cyberbullying. And while you might think adults should know better, I can site example, after example after example, that when it comes to romance, they do not, and their inability to asses appropriate responses runs the gamut from comic to sad to deadly.

    So, rather than go the smirky route, here’s some tips for how to deal with either rejection after a date or unwanted, potentially harassing contact after a first date. You might think these should be obvious, but adults have to be told not to stuff Buzz Lightyears up their asses, fergodssake. There are no rational ideas that don’t bear repeating.

    First, how to be rejected.

    As a freelancer I’m used to being ignored. Freelancers pitching stories are never the most important part of any editors day, a humbling-but-true fact that can help make unresponsiveness of all kinds a little easier to cope with, even though it’s got a different vibe than romantic rejection. As far as that goes, a fair rule of thumb is that if someone you don’t know well (not a friend or colleague) doesn’t get back to you after you make three attempts within two weeks — and three attempts ONLY, not three texts AND three calls AND three emails, but one of each — cut yourself off like a drunk going cold turkey. Don’t try again. Don’t convince yourself their phone fell into the toilet, their computer is broken or they have been kidnapped by terrorists or they would be responding to you. They’re aware you made an attempt and whether they respond or not…this is the hard part… is entirely out of your control. You have to practice not thinking about them and like anything else you work at with genuine diligence, you’ll get better at it.

    I’m in no way minimizing this: no one researches how crazy love can make you feel unless it’s made them feel crazy too, so I get it. Whether it’s one date or one year of dates, rejection is baffling and painful, but you’re not the only one and it gets better. But you have to help it.

    On the other side of it, if you feel like you’re being harassed, there are steps to take to put the kibash on unwanted attention and feel a lot safer from future trouble in the bargain. If you really feel you don’t want to respond directly to the person with an unmistakable-but-gentle “I don’t feel the same way you do,” or if you feel like harassment has started before you could even try diplomacy, you can a) enhance your privacy settings, b) report the harassment to the websites it’s happening on, c) block the person from contact via phone or social media, d) tell mutual friends (if you have them) who might intervene and/or e) just contact the police. Your protection is their job and if you report something there is a record of it. I’ve experienced online harassment, so again, I get it and take it seriously; fortunately using the above-described methods worked for me and I never had to resort to calling the cops, but if I felt I had to do so I wouldn’t think twice. They’re in my phone.

    I know it’s fun to make light of other people’s evident craziness but those things can be both signs of danger and/or signs of pain. If you feel like you’ve been harassed there are avenues open to protect yourself.

    And if you’ve been rejected please, please absorb the idea that releasing yourself is much greater magic than enchanting someone else.

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