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Intimacy and Habituation: We Need to Talk

One of the problems with exploring the neuroscience behind any kind of human experience is the fear that doing so is reductive, and turns the experience into “nothing but” the underlying biology. As I have tried to make clear, and it is a lesson worth many repetitions, that just because the biology is necessary for an experience doesn’t make it sufficient. That does not mean that functions can “float free” of the biology necessary to accomplish them, any more than the bounce of the ball can float free of the ball when it is deflated. Obviously, bouncing requires more than just a ball, but a ball in certain circumstances, initiated by certain actions. So too does a “throw” not float free of the hand doing the throwing, but it also requires something being thrown. The victory of Aristotle over the dualism of Platonic Forms.

Similarly, not listening to bad news doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring, and pretending one didn’t do something doesn’t mean one isn’t responsible for its consequences. But worse, refusing to learn about something because one doesn’t want to think about it doesn’t mean that doing so might not actually be useful, informative, or even helpful to understand and function under its constraints. “Constraints” are sometimes what makes it possible for something to happen. Being unable to bend your lower leg forward at the knee is not only important for human locomotion, but locking the knee may be important to upright stance

Hence, there are a range of basic facts about human biology, and the physiology of our cognitive and emotional lives, our heads and our hearts, that appear, on first pass, to be bad news. Positive emotions like interest or joy, for example, tend to have lesser intensity than negative emotions like anger and fear, given the sympathetic physiology of fight and flight. As one might expect, since oxytocin feeds the neurochemistry of attachment, it is also important to the attachment and caregiving between parents and child. But wait, that makes sense evolutionarily, as the former are energizing us for immediate threats, the positive emotions bring us back faster, and can also give us some perspective; plus the added bonus of the intensity of the latter emotions are increased when preceded by the former, which lend their intensity to the even happier ending. What about the “top down” effects, inhibiting all those hot emotional feelings and intensities? But that is what “engaging our brains” is all about, despite those wonderfully addictive feelings. It is about calming down and focusing rather than feeling intense but acting stupid. Sadder, maybe, but wiser may feel better in the long run. Ask the Stoics. What about male “armor” and female “boundary control”? But aren’t these consistent with getting the job done, on the one hand, and being cautious on the other? What about the male shame about money, the female about not being pretty enough? I didn’t say we didn’t have some things we could work on. That “aggression” may be “natural” doesn’t mean it is good, especially at its more violent extremes, but we work on this all the time.

For my money (oops, I’m male, sorry for the metaphor), one of the worst is habituation, feeling less and less with repetition of the same stimulation over time. We’re wired to respond to change. Obviously this makes sense in our “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” where things that are unchanged are the things we don’t need to do anything about (why you never throw out old wardrobe items you haven’t worn for years, or books on a shelf you either have never read, of haven’t re-read for decades. Space is, after all, finite). But it’s also why we hear about and attend to trivial “News” but not the “Olds” that still continue to do damage whether by gradual erosion, or by pushing us closer and closer to a precipice which we don’t see. It’s also why you don’t hear the refrigerator until it turns off, or don’t feel your rear end on the seat until something draws your attention to it. And we do love surprises, at least the ones where we get more than we thought, or things aren’t as bad as they seemed. But yes, as Hamlet said, consciousness does make cowards of us all, though the “native hue of resolution” which is “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” might well lead to a “native hue” of consequences we’d really best avoid, and caution the better part of valor. Yes, Hamlet did say “conscience” not “consciousness,” but our habituation can be overcome by our capacity for attention, and attention can not only be drawn by survival-relevant events and powerful emotion, but also by our cortical capacities, which include drawing our attention to things because of something we have been taught by others or figured out for ourselves. Because we really can “engage brain” on purpose, because doing so may give us perspective, or advantage we otherwise would not have. Since habituation is really the enemy of arousal, we may have to get down and dirty to stay turned on.

Standard (if apocryphal) therapists’ humor is “If sex isn’t dirty, you are probably not doing it right.” Now, I can understand that this might be offensive to the innocent sexuality of two young lovers exploring their sexuality early on. But even there, I remember one newly non-virgin insisting that there be a kleenex box of “icky wipes” next to the bed of love. For the more jaded, or the married victims of the two-year half-life of romantic love, there may be a different story that needs to be told. For one thing, as Robin Williams once said, you only have enough blood to run one organ at a time. The neural substrate for sex operates well below the level of the cognitive prowess of the frontal cortex, and can become increasingly urgent regardless of whether we think it would be a good idea. For more rapidly arousing ("testosterone poisoned”) men, responding more intensely to more readily available visual information, like that .7 waist-to-hip ratio, this urgency is going to be a steeper and faster fall. For women, a closeness sense like olfaction is a bigger turn-on, and social evaluation, memory, and attention are more important. Romance novels are for women what porn often is for men; the latter also fall in love more precipitously, as there is less at biological stake. There are, of course, “off” switches. Fear and anxiety are going to produce difficulties for the sexual tuning of relaxed foreplay, the comfortable caresses that make for the playful aspects of intimacy, and disgust classically inhibits a whole range of “approach” responses. Let’s not forget that as mammals, male and female humans are amongst the most similar, include the rarity of having male involvement in child-rearing, and are the species for which kindness is more important than either looks or financial success for both genders. Still, men do have more of the neurochemicals of lust and lower levels of those that feed attachment than do women. Hence the classic tension in love between men and women. So slow down, let’s cuddle a while