Saturday, January 14, 2012


Sex, brains and a frustrated reader

Rowan Hooper, news editor dirtyminds.jpg
TOWARDS the end of this detailed but frustrating book, there is a Yoda-like pronouncement from Semir Zeki, a neuroaestheticist at University College London: "There is a relationship between love, beauty and desire. Hate too. Beauty often leads to desire, which can lead to love. Love may lead to hate."
The inconclusive nature of this statement pretty much sums up why Dirty Minds made me want to turn to the dark side. Kayt Sukel was pressing Zeki to say whether there is a thin line between love and hate, and he was reluctant. It's not surprising. In this book Sukel makes admirable attempts to find scientific answers - but is thwarted from the outset by the fact that she doesn't start with any clear questions.
Sukel takes us on a thorough tour of the scientific work on the brains of people in love - what hormones may be involved, and what role genetics plays. It's fascinating stuff, even if much of it may be familiar to New Scientist readers (and Sukel could do with being a bit more critical of fMRI studies). But to my mind the more interesting biological questions are functional, why questions. Why do some animals have monogamous bonds? Why is it that sometimes the paternally derived versions of genes are turned on, and sometimes the maternal versions? What is the function of the orgasm?
These are questions that can't be answered without reference to evolution, but Sukel doesn't go there. It's a shame, because she is a writer willing to push boundaries with her research - including writing a great first-person account of having an orgasm in a brain scanner. If only we could get as much pleasure out of reading her work as Sukel gets from researching it.

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