Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Love and Neuroscience

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, January 10, 2009 | Category: , , , , |

Larry Young has a recent article in Nature on the neuroscience of love.  A friend of mine posted a link to the BBC science reporting on the topic (Is Love Just a Chemical Cocktail?) on facebook.  I posted a few comments, and disagreed with the outright agreement of several people with the methods adopted by Young. 

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Faaiza Asma at 18:24, on 10 January.
I sad as this is, we are just a walking talking bag of chemicals! Love isn't an otherwordly fantastic emotion inexplained by neuroscience and neurobiolgy. It diminishes as soon as the oxytocin levels and dopamine levels fall! *sadness*

Dennis Chu at 18:36, on 10 January.
yip, lust which we all agree is a product of hormones promotes human reproduction and love is simply another product of our hormones which improves the chances of partners staying together which improves the chances of successfully raising offspring. all in all, its all human nature ensuring the prorogation of our species!

 Simon Halliday at 19:39, on 10 January.
I think that some of these comments are a bit over the top. The original Kosfeld et al (2005, Nature) paper on Oxytocin showed higher average and median 'trust'
levels for subjects given oxytocin in the Investment (Trust) Game. Their actions were also statistically different in the face of social interactions, rather than randomly determined choice sets. Kosfeld et al make the point of the relevance of social embeddedness of the decision process. Crockett et al's (2008, Science) paper showed that reductions in 5-HT serotonin increased rejection rates of highly unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game. Going from these very particular statements to 'all love is chemical' is, I believe, far too strong. Humans are not prairie voles.

Faaiza Asma at 20:27, on 10 January.
Working in the same research group as Molly Crockett, author of the Crockett et al paper mentioned, she showed that chemical manipulations of serotonin affect acceptence and rejection rates in the ultimatum game- that is correct. However, extending the same reasoning to the science of love, it is not too far-fetched and has been shown that chemical manipulations and varying levels of neurotransmitters in the brain do have a HUGE effect on 'love', particularly the initial infatuation stage - there are obviously differing reasons why we are initially attracted to someone- personality, appearance, pheromes etc. and these are in a large part attributed to neuroscience anyway BUT as for the continuation of these romantic feelings and the maintenance of them, we do owe alot of that to altering neurochemical levels in the brain, which go hand in hand to how intimately we feel towards that person at the time! but yes, we are a heck more sophisticated than prairie voles!

 Simon Halliday at 22:14, on 10 January.
I was not contesting that Neuroscience & Neurobiology don't provide valid explanations, but rather what worries me is the overstatement of what we know about neurochemistry. I felt Young was overstating what we know from particular research (the Kosfeld stuff in particular), as do many in the popular press (and even academic presses, including some of my academic heroes) when they talk about potential parallels for the fairly narrow theory in the lab. I am not saying that generalizing theory is wrong, simply that we have to be careful.

I also agree that neurotransmitters and brain chemistry do tons (for example the Knoch et al (2006) DLPFC interruption paper - so cool! But I am wary of overgeneralizing and particularly overgeneralizing in the popular press.

By the way, it must have been SO COOL to work with Crockett on that paper. Feel the jealousy!


I will let you know if more comments arise.  I am very sceptical of overgeneralizing.  I am aware of the politics of getting one's name and research published and I often worry about overstatement for aggrandization (à la the recent article in Science (I think) on 'overstatement of 'new' results' (can't remember which issue this was)). I am not saying that Young was doing this, but that it is the case that some people in the area of Neuroscience (Neuroeconomics, etc) overstate the potential parallels of their results.  I refer, particularly, to the use of fMRI scans and interpreting scanning results.

Aside: I'd strongly recommend the recent special issue of the journal Economics and Philosophy late last year for some high quality reviews of the uses of Neuroeconomics. Don Ross (an ex-Professor of mine at UCT) offers some valid insights into the different classes of Neuroeconomics.  Though I don't completely agree with him and his dismissal of most behavioural economics style neuroeconomics research, I am still deeply sceptical of the 'experiments + scanners = results' method.

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