I was down at Lakeside Park the other day; I was checking out my new camera. I was in the Japanese Garden behind the Lakeside Park Garden Center, taking some pictures. I was actually leaving with my tripod and camera across my shoulder, and I came face to face, right in the gateway, with a gorgeous woman who was on her way in. She had a look of some distress on her face and I wondered if it had anything to do with encountering a strange man where she expected to find no one, or if she would have looked distressed anyway.
Japanese Garden, Lakeside Park
Well, I noticed two things about her: she had a beautiful face and dark hair, and it was a rather chilly day so she had on a jacket. I couldn’t tell much about her upper body, but she was wearing these... what a friend of mine calls huggy pants. I don’t know if that’s an official name, but they’re knit, and they’re snug fitting. They’re not super sexy, they’re soft and cuddly looking, and hers were particularly thick. All I really saw was a little below the waist down to her knees, just caught a glimpse, and she had a nice body based on that brief sample--the kind that appeals to me, anyway--with a certain amount of strength in the legs. Not too skinny, and not fat looking at all. It was just really... just a really wonderful looking woman.
Of course, my immediate reaction was, that the hero immediately came out: I wanted to save her--she looked distressed. I got to thinking about it... I smiled when I realized what was happening, what I was thinking, and feeling, and I thought, well now isn’t that just typical. I mean, it’s so comfortable to find a woman who looks distressed, because I know how to deal with distressed women. I grew up with a distressed woman--my mother--she always looked rather unhappy about one thing or another, and there was no real way of making her happy. Her life as she saw it was just not anything that... Well, you know, she’s mellowed out in her old age, but I think that’s where I got this predilection for distressed women.
So my first impression was, I could save her, and she would be grateful, and indebted, and that idea appeals to me. This is something that I analyzed, and, well, I’ve been analyzing it for years, because I have been involved with a succession of distressed or distressed looking women. Well... distressed looking... they’re not abused physically or anything looking, but distressed... (laughs) when I said that the second time it made me think of something we talk about in 3-D, about distressed surfaces: surfaces that show signs of use and age. I didn’t mean it in that sense...
The thing is, I thought it through, and I thought, well, suppose that... On the one hand, there was some difference in age--she was 20 years younger than me--so there’s some doubt that I would appeal to her as a hero. But, just suppose there was something in her background that predisposed her to older fellows, and we got involved, and I managed to relieve her distress. What would happen then?
What would happen is what always happens: in the end I end up missing myself. It turns out that there’s a kind of peculiar thing, perhaps, about me, that I really... In social situations, I don’t ever feel like I’m in contact with who I am. There’s always the attention that goes to the other person: if you’re in someone else’s company, you have to pay attention to them, and even if you are just in the same room and not really directly relating to them, with me there’s an awareness of another human being there, in that what I do or don’t do is going to impact that person in some way. And so there’s always this certain amount of attention on my part that goes to monitoring the other person, and as a consequence there’s less attention for me. Now that is something that I’m not sure everyone will relate to. I have a lot of experience with being by myself, and it might take that, it might take a lot of experience of being with yourself.
I had a rather solitary job when I was working; I spent a lot of time in the job on my own. There were other people involved--it was a cooperative effort and so forth--but there wasn’t any communication. I mean, we communicated via signals.
I started out as a switchman on the railroad, and I signaled to the engineer what I wanted him to do--at first by hand and later with radios--and then I became an engineer and I was on the other end: I got my instructions from the guy on the ground waving his arm or his lantern, or talking to me on the radio. So, there wasn’t a whole lot of social activity, and in fact, in the shanty, I really, for the most part, avoided social activity. I had a book, or a magazine, and I was always busy doing something other than talking to the people I worked with. It was mainly because the book or the magazine was always more interesting than the people I was around, and the kinds of things that people talked about. When I was on the road later on, I spent a lot of time in motel rooms, or wandering about towns, waiting for a train to go back the other way. So I had a lot of time by myself, when I wasn’t working--when I was out of town--and it may take all that time alone to develop a sense of comfort with yourself, and an interest in yourself and in what goes on with you, that which you then feel diminished in the company of other people.
So if you haven’t had that background, it may not be something you can relate to, but, for me then, if I pursued this fantasy of the distressed woman, I came up with she and I in some sort of situation where we were spending time together, and she wanted to talk about this, or she wanted to do that, and I, meanwhile, wanted to do something else, or I wanted to think about something, or I just wanted to enjoy solitude. If you have never really enjoyed solitude, you don’t know, perhaps, what I’m talking about, so it may have absolutely no relevance to your life.
The next day I was home, and I had received the latest issue of National Geographic (February, 2006) a few days before, and been wanting to read this cover article, which was about love. On the cover there’s a picture of a couple--man and woman--looking totally involved with each other, romantic. So I have had... I have had (laughs) I’ve had occasion to think about love, and what it means in relationships--a lot--and to read the research that’s been done, and I was interested in seeing what this person’s perspective was, and in fact they didn’t really give me any new information. There was research on serotonin levels in people who were in love, and who were obsessive-compulsive. It turns out that the neurotransmitter levels in both those groups of people were much more similar than they were like normal people. In other words there was quite a... (laughs) the crazy people were more like people in love than either one of them were like normal people. (The author is a woman, Florence Slater. She has a rather whimsical response to the research on serotonin.)
So, the point was that being in love alters your brain chemistry; alters it in ways that dispose you to be obsessed, or absorbed in the person you’re in love with. High serotonin levels are very attractive to some people--to most of us--that feeling of being totally involved, I suppose. There’s a built-in attraction to it, because it’s conducive to pair bonding--getting involved with someone enough to propagate children with them. It was very interesting that she had this very scientific approach--in some parts. She covered all the relevant research about serotonin, and the one that really played a bigger part in her whole article, I think, was oxytocin, which happens in circumstances where it’s much less intense than the serotonin infatuation of new love. But it has the effect... There was an experiment that was done fairly recently, where these researchers cooked up a game, where they could measure the degree of trust that people had in their fellow game-players. It had to do with how much money you would let them invest on your behalf--all play money, of course--but then people react the same, in certain circumstances, if you get them in a game-playing situation. And so they... I suppose they injected them--I don’t know if you can take it orally or what--but at any rate, they dosed a certain number of the participants with oxytocin. And they found that, as a result, they trusted everybody; they were very trusting.
They’ve done experiments with prairie voles and oxytocin. Prairie voles, just as a matter of course, are monogamous, but they found if they altered their chemistry in some way so that they produced less oxytocin, then they were much less likely to be monogamous, and they would wander off and play the field a bit more. So oxytocin has to do with trust and bonding on a long-term level, and in fact if you have an orgasm with someone, it raises your oxytocin levels--for both parties involved--and has a tendency to make the two of you, then, feel closer. And so, the interesting thing, then, is whether of not we feel close to someone may depend on our oxytocin levels.
I’ve personally experienced this myself, that the aftereffects of sex is this warm fuzzy glow, and, it’s funny, in my marriages, how, the longer we go, as partners, without sex, the more critical I become of the other person, and the more I become annoyed with little habits that they have. And when we make love... (laughs) for a few days at least afterwards, all those little things that were annoying me no end are so cute and adorable, and they don’t really... or else they’re just no big deal; they just don’t matter that much. But, then depending on how long it is till there’s more sex, the greater the irritation becomes.
A Few Small Defects
So one of the researchers, one of the scientists that this woman talked to in the article, said that, if you want to have a comfortable, and secure, and interesting marriage... if you want to be interested, and feel loving toward your partner, then you should have sex with them more often. And the author compared it to her mother telling her that if she ate her peas, she would come to like them, and she didn’t seem to be enchanted with the comparison--that it was something odious, that if you did, it would have a good effect in the long run.
Well, at the same time that she’s presenting all these scientific findings, it’s a very personal article, and she’s talking about her own relationship with her husband, and how it’s not as new as it once was, and she’s been looking for ways to invigorate it. And the last few paragraphs of the article... They had tried a couple of things without any real results, or had made some attempts, but the last one that they did... The way it was supposed to work, was that you looked at your partner, and you sat with your partner and you looked at each other, in the eyes, for some extended period of time --five minutes, or something--and they were separated: she had business in a far away place and had been wanting to try this. She thought that the second best thing would be to do it over the phone--they both had pictures of each other--and so they would hold onto the telephone and look at the pictures of each other in this silent contemplation. And, as it happened for her, as she looked at the picture, she started remembering things about the occasion when it was taken, and there were some endearing things about her husband: they found a baby turtle, or something, you know--baby things--and his behavior toward the turtle, and the whole thing; as she thought about it, she started getting the warm fuzzy feelings. Like oxytocin levels were rising. I read that, and being the kind of empathic person that I am, I got choked up at the end--it was very touching. And, it made me think about the last time I had a hug; which has been, oh, I think a few weeks now, since I live alone and I no longer have a partner that I’m in contact or involved with.
So I remembered this hug, and I got this nostalgic... kind of sadness, and I realized, then, that as I thought about this person, and I thought about the hug, I missed them. I had the feeling of missing them, and feeling close to them, and wanting to be close to them, but as I thought about it a bit more, it was like the woman in the park: I got to thinking about the reality of the situation, and realized that my feeling, that feeling that I was having at that moment, had really nothing to do with our overall relationship, or how compatible we were, and that really, it was just the kind of human thing that you might feel with anyone that you hugged, if you are a person like me, who--I won’t go into the whole history--but I happen to be the kind of a person who, I’m very open, and if somebody wants to give me a hug, I love them. I don’t put up any barriers, or any hesitation. There’s no fear involved... well, you know, I’m a guy, so who’s gonna hurt me by hugging me? I enjoy hugs, and they really don’t have anything to do with the personality of the person.
So I thought about, that there other things about oxytocin that have I read, and it has to do with the relief of stress, and how hugs, and having a partner, or having a pet are conducive to longevity. I think that it’s the oxytocin that counteracts the effects of stress... Not necessarily meaning that you have high levels of stress, but oxytocin is conducive to your sense of well-being, and that sense of well-being is conducive to good health. Because, if you feel isolated and alone, and lonely, you have a tendency not to be so healthy. It undermines your immune system.
So it reminded me of this book I’ve been reading in bits, along... for a week or so, by Richard Restak, who does research on the brain, as well as having a clinical practice, and he also writes books about the brain. Another one that I have read by him is very good, called, “The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own.” But this one is called, “Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot,” and what it’s really about is how we can improve the functioning of our brain.
One of the things he talks about... well, memory of course is one thing that improves the overall function of the brain... the better your memory is... and he has lots of exercises for improving your memory. But he talks about emotional memory, and how, this tendency we have--which I’ve been aware of for some time--to feel that, however we’re feeling now is the way we’ve always felt, and the way things are, and there’s some sort of concreteness and permanence about it that really is not the case. It’s a temporary configuration of neurochemicals.
He talks about exercises... looking at pictures of yourself at variable intervals of time in the past, and try to remember how you felt at the time, and that this is something that people have a tendency not to be very good at: to not be able to relate to how they felt at that time, and think more in terms of how they feel at the present moment. So this is an exercise that you can do, and improve your emotional memory.
How Do You Feel About This?
So all this came together... I was thinking about the love, and oxytocin, and emotional memory, and I thought, you know, I bet the memory of a hug, the more real you can make that memory; instead of just thinking, oh yeah, I had a hug, but to remember how it felt... I theorize that that would raise your oxytocin levels, and, for a person like me who lives alone, and doesn’t have a pet, and doesn’t want one because, hey, you know, you have to take care of the little beasts; I have other interests. But perhaps, I could improve my health and longevity by improving my emotional memory for the state of being hugged. I’ve been practicing it, and it’s really funny how I get this warm, happy feeling about myself. I do occasionally have moments of loneliness... or when I think about people that I’ve been involved with at one time or another, and there’s this sort of missing, and, oh, it’s too bad it didn’t work out, for one reason or another. And that has a tendency to be a kind of down mode of thinking, a down state of mind to be in, and just in the brief time that I’ve been practicing this emotional memory for hugs, it seems that’s a great antidote for that feeling of momentary loneliness, or the feeling that life is missing something somehow.
The feeling that life is missing something; I think could be categorized as mild depression: a state of neurotransmitters that’s characterized by the feeling of mild depression. And that by learning to remember the good feeling of being hugged, you can change your neurochemical balance in your brain and alter your mood. Which is a handy skill to have, I think. I mean, if we could learn to be happy and content, and have a feeling of well-being; realizing that it primarily has to do with neurotransmitters, and that if we can learn to adjust those... I think it’s better to learn to adjust them with some sort of mental exercise than it is by taking a pill, which is sort of like hitting the problem with a sledge hammer. It’s very lacking in subtlety and it has this overall effect, whereas you can sort of subtly apply this technique as needed.
It seems to be working, this theory. I’ll have to keep you posted.
But one of the things about this article, and something that keeps coming up in the book as well, is our sense of who we are, and how that is affected by genetic predispositions to certain mental states. Like the predisposition to become infatuated; having to do with the propagation of DNA, and I thought about it at the end of this article: that it’s an idea that this woman flirted with, and one of the scientists she interviewed was much less subtle about it. There’s a photograph in the article of a couple who just got married--I think they’re Italian--and the guy is... well the woman looks happy... but the guy looks totally jubilant. In this particular photograph, she looks happy, content enough, but he’s got his fist up in the air with this sort of a victory gesture, and a huge, huge grin on his face. And Helen Fisher, the scientist type, says, “Look at the joy of this man. He has just won the most important thing in his life: the opportunity to pass along his DNA,” and I wonder, really, how many people think about their lives in such terms? To think that, the most important thing in your life is passing on your DNA, and that everything else you do is, sort of, subservient to that in one way or another, and that your progress along the way toward achieving that goal is governed and marshaled by the neurotransmitters and the hormones that are released in various circumstances along the way, so that you feel in certain ways in certain situations.
And myself, I think that the more I know about the influence, about the factors that are influencing my desires, and my feelings, the greater the opportunity to have some sort of... the word that comes to mind is “control,” and it’s a word that I shy away from, because the question is, who is controlling, and the whole question, the whole subject is about control, and who, or what, is in control of one’s mental state--my mental state, and my point of view. How I think of it is that consciously, I’m aware of so little of that chemistry... I get the overall effects, I mean I’m conscious of whether I’m happy, or sad; whether I’m feeling warm and fuzzy, or whether I’m feeling like I’m missing something... I get those effects, but you know, really, what the particular stimulus was at any particular moment, in any particular time period, and how that played out in the state of chemistry in my body, is sort of mysterious. But the more we understand about it, the more I understand about it, the more there is an opportunity for my brain (laughs) to alter its response to the environment.
The brain’s job is to get us through the world, and really, it evolved to propagate DNA--I’m totally into the evolutionary approach to things--but how that plays out in day-to-day life is... the brain’s job is to orient us in society and in the world, and to figure out what’s going on in the world, in the environment, and to formulate a plan of action, based on its understanding, for securing the survival needs of the organism. You know, if you don’t survive, you can’t propagate. So that’s basically its job, and so if your survival depends on being healthy and happy, your brain’s predisposed to try and figure out how you can be healthy and happy. So it has an ongoing tendency to try to understand the world, and really, to understand itself in a way that is conducive to its well-being.
I think that is what decides out courses of action: we figure out, our brain figures out, because we are consciously in touch with so little of what processing is going on, that our brain figures out how it can negotiate the territory in such a way that we’re healthy and happy, and optimized. So, how one feels about that is really (laughs) I think, for myself, I am sort of along for the ride, because consciously I’m just not aware of a lot of what goes on, and I see my brain struggling, I see the effects of my brain struggling to understand the environment, and itself, and its successes in that, and I really... I really don’t have much to do with it, consciously. It’s... it’s an interesting proposition, and this may be hard to get across, and I think that’s as far as I’ll try to go with it at the moment.