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How We Feel
What Neuroscience Can - and Can't - Tell Us About Our Emotions
by Giovanni Frazzetto
Neuroscience is the new genetics: we turn to it to explain who we are and why we behave the way we do. Particularly, as this intriguing book points out, when it comes to our sexual emotions. Neuroscience has so much to tell us about why and how we feel stimulated during sex that the molecules that create sexual emotions have already found their way into popular vocabulary. In the anticipation of pleasure, for instance, the neurotransmitter dopamine 'bathes your brain', while endorphins ('home-made opioids') are the ones that give you 'comforting, blissful sensations'. During sex, we are awash with the latter - so much so, as Giovanni Frazzetto, a molecular biologist, describes in this eye-opening study of neuroscience, that 'when we reach an orgasm, the brain looks as if it is on heroin'.
Neuroscience, as Frazzetto highlights, has increasingly become our way of understanding ourselves. We say, for example, that our serotonin levels are depressingly low, or that we're experiencing a surging adrenaline high. Somehow, it seems more sophisticated to blame the messenger molecules in our brains for our feelings than anything else.
Frazzetto, however, disagrees. He thinks that there are limits to what neuroscience can tell us about our emotions. This may seem a surprising view coming from a molecular biologist dedicated to studying the crossover between neuroscience and society. It also puts his book at odds with what is not so much a flurry as a slurry of recent publications that have held up neuroscience as the key to illuminating our every mood.
One by one, Frazzetto tackles seven emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety and grief, as well as empathy, joy and love. He is especially convincing on anxiety. Neuroscience appears to have located the centre of this emotion in the brain's amygdala ('imagine an arrow that goes straight through your eye and another that goes through your ear,' he advises; 'their point of intersection is the position of the amygdala'). Frazzetto, though, cites evidence from experiments in mice that shows how anxious behaviour can, in fact, be remoulded - and in humans, treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy have been shown to have significant impact, changing the functioning of anxiety. Talking cures really do work.
It's when it comes to sex, though, that neuroscience has the most extraordinary observations to offer. When women have been monitored stimulating themselves in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) - 'a remarkable event', comments Frazzetto, given how claustrophobic the devices are - the brain is lit up like a Christmas tree, in 'ecstatic turmoil'. By contrast, the orbitofrontal cortex in women, the bit that exerts control, virtually shuts down. In men, the amygdala likewise quietens down almost completely; 'orgasmic moments' apparently 'bring us to a fearless place'.
All this surely explains why sex is so addictive. But love, predictably, proves more elusive. Lovers studied in fMRI scanners reveal brain regions for reward and motivation that are 'bedewed with dopamine'. This makes them astonishingly focused on the beloved while, at the same time, their amygdala are deactivated, reducing their ability to process negative emotions. We do not see what we do not like. Frazzetto compares this process, cleverly, to the suspension of disbelief in the theatre.
The central problem with neuroscience, however, is precisely that it relies so heavily on fMRI scans. And the problem with these scans, as Frazzetto is at pains to show, is that they are only blurred glimpses of the workings of our brain. An fMRI scanner produces little more than snapshots of blood-flow in the brain, revealing which bits are more or less active at any given moment.
Frazzetto explains with admirable clarity how fMRI works, and in doing so, he also exposes its drawbacks. An fMRI scan, he says, is 'like being on top of the London Eye and having a 360-degree night view of the illuminated London skyline without binoculars': you can see lit windows, but you cannot see inside them - still less inside 'the lives and motivations of the people turning on those lights and giving colour and movement to the city'.
All of this means that the explanations of neuroscience do not get us much closer to understanding the workings of the mind. Scanners may spot joy or sadness occurring in the brain, but they cannot tell us what those emotions mean for the person experiencing them. Neuroscience, ultimately, does not have a clue what feeling feels like.
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Does neuroscience have much to tell us about ourselves? Does an understanding of genes, neurotransmitters and wiring diagrams of the brain help us to understand why we behave in the way we do? Do neuroscientists have an insight into human life that the rest of us lack? We live, after all, in an age of what has been called 'neuromania', where the prefix 'neuro' is used to add instant credibility to almost anything. We have, for instance, neuroeconomics, neurotheology, neurophysio and neurolaw, to name just a few.
In this engaging, although at times irritating, book subtitled What neuroscience can - and can't - tell us about our emotions, the neuroscientist Giovanni Frazzetto shows that there is much more can't than can. Indeed, as much of the book is devoted to a broad discussion of art, philosophy and the theatre (and the author's own life) as it is to hard neuroscience. It is, however, very refreshing to find a popular neuroscience book, written by a proper neuroscientist, that clearly sets out the achievements and severe limitations of experimental neuroscience. He mentions, for instance, the infamous functional brain-scanning experiment (which won the Ig Nobel Prize ) on a dead salmon, which showed that the dead fish could reliably identify people's emotional expressions. The authors of the study showed that the absurd conclusion arose as a result of a fault in statistical method. When they reviewed the functional brain-scanning experiments published in one major journal, they found that 39 per cent of the studies had made the same mistake.
The book gives a good account of our current understanding of the neurobiology of emotion. His analogies and images when explaining the science are often illuminating and sometimes inspired. Each chapter deals with a particular emotion - anger, grief, love etc - and is framed within stories about the author's own life. We learn how there is now a firm scientific basis to what most parents have always known — that children are born with different emotional predispositions, with different personalities. Differences in genes and neurotransmitters, for instance, correlate well with a tendency towards - in the case of the gene MAOA - violent behaviour, and getting married in the case of receptor sites for the hormone vasopressin.
This is not, however, as Frazzetto clearly explains, to say that such molecular differences determine behaviour, only that they influence it, which is little different from saying that different people are born differently. He warns us against the facile simplifications of attributing depression to low serotonin levels or of describing oxytocin as the 'love molecule'. It is good to hear this. The book, however, is rather let down by some of the lengthy passages about the author's life, some of which are of little relevance to the subject of the book. They can verge on the self-indulgent and are at times banal (he sobs over Barber's Adagio for Strings). He can appear a little too pleased with himself and his exquisite aesthetic sensitivity. A little self-deprecation would have helped.
Will we ever understand the brain? Frazzetto concludes his book with the well-known line drawing that can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck. He says neurosciences and the arts and humanities are likewise equally valid ways of understanding the world. There is much truth in this but there are sound reasons for thinking that achieving a true understanding of the brain might be as unlikely as mankind ever travelling to the stars. We are compelled to understand things in terms with which we are already familiar - over the centuries the brain has been compared to a hydraulic system, to a telephone exchange, to a computer. We have never met a brain before and it is by no means certain that we have the language with which to understand it. As J. B. S. Haldane said of the universe, the brain might not just be stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.
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