On a long drive I was listening to a public radio conversation amongst scientists about the possibility of creating truly intelligent computer “minds” and whether or not a computer could develop feelings. This was inspired by the recent movies Her and Transcendence, both featuring computers who develop or upload personalities that can interact with humans. This brings up interesting questions about what is consciousness and what we need to feel connection with another. But what surprised me was the complete absence of any mention of the body itself and its role in our emotions.
I am not a neuroscientist; I am a psychotherapist. From all that I know and have witnessed in human’s emotional lives, I do not believe we could ever create a computer personality that can have feelings. Why do I say this? Because feelings involve physical sensation. Hence FEEL-ings. We are so attuned to our fleeting physical shifts throughout our day that many of us don’t even consciously register them anymore. But what we know from scientists who look at our emotional responses, the experience and expression of emotion uses several parts of our nervous system all working incredibly quickly and sometimes, seamlessly. But if we could slow the emotion creation down, what we most often would find is that 1) first there is an external cue that we register to in a split second, so quickly that we are sometimes unaware of the cue itself (I fumble my change while getting my morning coffee) 2) we have a non-voluntary physiological reaction; our body responds in a way that we can feel (the muscles in my arms and hands tense, I get a burst of focus, my stomach contracts, I blush) 3) our neocortex is mobilized to make sense of the body response, this is when an emotion is assigned to the feeling within our mind (those sensations feel to me like embarrassment) 4) then our neocortex references social norms and meanings of this emotion and enables us to decide how to behave (I notice that the barista didn’t seem to care, this has happened before, no big deal, I can let it go) . All of this happens within seconds. But the feeling of emotion begins when our body responds.
Now as a therapist, I am also aware that what we think affects how we feel. What we focus on shapes our perceptions of the world and our responses to it. We can indeed think ourselves into a bad mood; we have all done it. But in that case the thought is the original cue, an internal one rather than an external one. The feeling state will still be based on a physical response, and our subsequent interpretation of it. Our body is the source of our emotional life. It is integral to our unique responses, our desires, our sense of connection to others. I believe our body allows us to feel the way we feel about people or situations through a complex flow of sensations and chemistry. Without a complete nervous system and the ability to experience sensation, I believe a computer mind could generate preferences, maybe even a pattern of enjoyment. But not love, not sadness, not anger, not longing or lust. For those I believe we need a body. Are you listening to yours?
Ahhhh, that new love or lust feeling. The euphoria, the tingles, the butterflies, the nights you can stay up talking and making love, no need to sleep. The sense that you have met the One, that nothing else matters, that this is what you have been looking for.
Researcher Helen Fisher studied people in early stages of love and she found that the incredible rush of new love is reflected or created, depending on your philosophy, by shifts in our brain chemistry. That’s right we are actually experiencing changes in brain chemistry – increased dopamine and norephinephrine in particular. New relationships light up the pleasure centers of the brain, including what are known as the addiction-like drives in the brain meaning the drive to get MORE of that as soon as possible. These parts of our brains give us more energy, they can cause us to maintain focused attention and an intense yearning for the recent source of our pleasure. During this early phase of attraction people find that they need less sleep, have strong emotions, may experience intrusive thinking about the person they are drawn to, find it hard to focus on normal daily tasks, and have a heightened sex drive.
All of this allows us, and indeed encourages us, to form stronger attachments. It helps us to fall in love deeply and to place our attention and energy on nurturing a new relationship. However, this brain state also can cause us to see our new partner in a slightly imbalanced light. You know that feeling, when you adore everything about them, even their faults are quirky and adorable. You may also recognize the feeling that can come later when you wonder how you ever thought that habit was cute and the character traits that once charmed you now get on your last nerve. Also tricky, in new relationship energy we are so drawn to attach to this new partner that problems and conflicts may only serve to heighten our drive to be with them. Romeo and Juliet never got past new relationship energy.
So maybe new relationship energy is not in the best mind space for decision-making or long term planning. It is not crazy however. This phase of relationship is a gift, one that opens us up to another person in a way that is non-rational. But love and attachment are not at their foundation about reason. Still, reason and clear judgment are good for creating a life we can enjoy and feel good about. Helen Fisher’s research also found that at some point our brain activity changes again and we are better able to process our emotions and consider other important elements in our life again. We also lose that supernatural ability to go without sleep, have sex anywhere at any time, and to see our partner as perfection embodied. Oh well.
Don’t be afraid of new relationship energy, just be aware of it. Ride this wave and know you will eventually be back on shore, hopefully with a solid attachment to your new partner and also the ability to see the big picture.
Referenced : Fisher, Helen (2004) Why We Love : the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love