Sunday, November 27, 2005

Your brain on love

Even by the low standards of the British press's science coverage, today's gem from the Independent is appalling:
Revealed: the chemistry of love
The good news: they've discovered the love chemical inside us all. The bad news: it only lasts a year

The very source of love has been found. And is it that smouldering look exchanged across a crowded room? Those limpid eyes into which you feel you could gaze for ever? No. It's NGF, say unromantic spoilsport scientists who have made the discovery, - that's short for nerve growth factor.

And now, the really deflating news: its potent, life-enhancing, brain-scrambling effect doesn't last. It subsides within the year of first falling in love - presumably within the same period it takes lovers to notice that the object of their affections can't get the lid on the toothpaste.
First, the lame trope about scientists being "unromantic" and "spoilsport" (as if anything could be more wondrous than understanding how the profoundest emotions are created by something so relatively simple as cells and synapses). Then, the complete lack of context in explaining that nerve growth factor is required throughout development in the nervous system. Then, the implication that this finding "reveals" something about the subjective experience of love ("the bad news: it only lasts a year"), when the study is only looking at a possible biological basis for a phenomenon already well-established in psychology (that early romantic love changes to long-term attachment over time). Then, the neglect of other chemicals in the brain that have previously been tied to love, like oxytocin and vasopressin (and these actually found in the brain, not just circulating in the bloodstream as with NGF in the present study).

You could argue that getting people interested in science is worth a bit of oversimplification, but really, there comes a point when you're harming science more than you're helping it. I submit this story as yet another example under the hypothesis from The Guardian's Bad Science column I noted a few months ago:
It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science.
If you want a more serious journalistic effort about recent scientific research on the neurobiology of love, try this one.


Blogger Breena Ronan said...

What can be done about all this bad science though? It’s really frustrating to see the media oversimplifying things, but science education is in such a poor state (in the US at least) that the public has no experience thinking critically about scientific issues.

11/28/2005 07:58:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, but is it too much to ask for the media to "first do no harm?" It's not hard to hire competent science writers and write non-inane stories.

11/28/2005 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I remember an interview in the NewScientist with a guy that created "formula" for journalists or advertisers. Say, the formula for a perfect ham sandwitch. At first he thought it was fun and might even give people an idea of thinking quantitatively, but later he started to think that a lot of it fit the parody mold you suggest. The advertisers, of course, considered science to be just another form of retoric that could be created and deployed at will.

But then scientists are all mad and have funny hair anyway, don't they?

11/28/2005 04:33:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Ugh, I remember one such annoying "formula" story back in January - someone had calculated a "formula" for the unhappiest day of the year and concluded that it was January 17 or some rubbish like that, on the basis that that's when the confluence of post-holiday depression, failure at keeping New Years resolution, and dreary January weather in the UK all reached their peak plus the fact that it was Monday. It was all over the radio and newspapers - "scientist declares that today is the worst day of the year!" What an absurd image of science!

11/28/2005 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Ben Goldacre said...

Go sister.

12/01/2005 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I think the article may, in fact, entirely misrepresent the study.
Here's the abstract:

Now, my reading of this is that there happened to be a year between the two tests, and that some subjects had their NGF levels (and self-reported feelings) drop in that year. So there is no reason to think that NGF (or love) last more, or less, than a year based on this study.

12/02/2005 01:31:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Wow, it gets worse. I've now actually read the whole paper, and

1) it wasn't "one year," it's "12-24 months". [And you're right, they would have been better-off doing a time course instead of only 2 timepoints.]

2) they never measured the "love" feelings of the people in established relationships (they used a self-report questionnaire called the PLS, "passionate love scale," which in itself is rather suspect - it has questions like "For me, — is the perfect romantic partner"). This, to me, is a major gap - it would have been best if they could have shown that the "in love" subjects' PLS scores declined to the same level as the people in the established relationships.

3) it's actually unclear from the text whether the subjects they tested after 12-24 months were a) specially selected from the original "in love" pool as those who were no longer in the first flush of love, or b) just the subjects who hadn't broken up, and agreed to come back to the lab.

4) The paper itself makes mention of several other hormones which, according to their references, also have roles in emotional bonding, sociability, and which may regulate or be regulated by NGF in some way. Instead of reporting this accurately, the Independent story sums it up as NGF being "the" chemical of love. Lame.

12/02/2005 04:18:00 PM  
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It’s really frustrating to see the media oversimplifying things, but science education is in such a poor state (in the US at least) that the public has no experience thinking critically about scientific issues.

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