Lovin’ science lovin’

At 5:30pm on Friday with some wine, we will be marking the opening of the Art as Science group project exhibition at the Melbourne Graduate School of Science. The brief was to explore what ways science can be perceived as art, as conversely what science there is in art. The most obvious solution to achieve this was to represent scientific ideas in an artistic form united by a common theme: love.

Love is ubiquitous. It is undeniably the most popular theme in all artistic endeavours, ranging from visual arts to music, drama and literature. Walking down the street, business is exploiting the human being’s capacity to love in the form of billboards advertising dating websites, intimate apparel, and medication for erectile dysfunction. The television tell us about all those gifts to give those “special people” you “love” on greeting card company holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. It seems every second song on the radio is about love, whether it is the tender-loving love tender Elvis Presley, Billy Ray Cyrus’ hopefully very fragile “Achy Breaky Heart”, or the bad baby boy Bieber drawing upon his loooong life to educate us on the importance of being loved. You get the point.

So where’s the science? Let’s redefine what love is first. Take a look at a list of some of the characteristics of someone in love in comparison with someone heartbroken or fearing the loss of someone they love:

  • · When you are in love; you might be…
    • Feeling happy or elated – euphoric even
    • Energetic
    • Empathetic to others
    • Sympathetic to others
    • Extraverted and confident
    • Rational, or at least believe to be rational (in that case, delusional)
  • When you are heartbroken or fear of losing someone you love, you might experience…
    • Feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction – dysphoric even
    • Dissolution
    • Lethargy
    • Introversion/social isolation
    • Aggression
    • Lack of empathy or sympathy for others
    • Irrational thoughts
    • Impulsiveness
    • Delusions.

Without knowing the context, these two lists reads much like a list of symptoms characterizing a psychiatric disorder in diagnostic manual such as the DSM-IV-TR. These items could also a list of effects and side-effects of a pharmacological treatments.

Maybe I’m just cynical. But what is love but a series of a complex series of emotions and behaviours triggered by memories and external stimuli (sight, smell, taste etc)? How we learn to react to these stimuli is dependent on the memories and emotions, the most powerful positive re-inforcing/punishing tool the brain has in associative learning. There are specific areas of the brain associated with all of these characteristics. The prefrontal cortex (empathy, sociability, smell), the amygdala (emotions), cingulated cortex (working memories) and the hippocampus (long-term memory formation), just to name a few, have all been associated with other mental health issues such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, psychopathy and schizophrenia. In short, how we learn to do anything, including how we learn to love, is dependent upon the structural and biochemical integrity of our neuroanatomy.

The Limbic System. Sourced from John R. Hesselink (http://spinwarp.ucsd.edu/neuroweb/Text/br-800epi.htm)

This brings me to the limbic system, a primitive part of our brain that becomes biochemically active when enjoying chocolate, sex, sky-diving, heroin* and anything fun really. The limbic system includes the “pleasure” and “reward” neural pathways that are integral to reinforcing and “rewarding” any “satisfying” activities or behaviours . This is particularly crucial in understanding substance dependency, as all the famous neurotransmitters noradrenaline, GABA, serotonin and most importantly the superstar dopamine are involved. To give you an example, MDMA (or the active ingredient in ecstasy if you have been living under a rock for the last twenty years) is known to many for inducing a feelings of euphoria, energy and empathy. The drug effectively facilitates the depleting presynaptic stores of monoamine neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline into the synaptic cleft. The increased concentrations of these chemicals are then able to occupy a greater number of receptors that potentiates the downstream effect.

It stands to reason that love can be scientifically characterised, quantified and can be pharmacologically induced or regulated. One of the main problems in defining love or “making a diagnosis” is the semantic arguments about what exactly defines the condition in psychological or biochemical sense. This is a problem with many psychiatric disorders (not that love is necessary one), where multiple genes and neurochemicals have been associated with a disease, and diagnosis is a subjective exercise. For example, many cases of Kreuzfeld-Jakob disease, or the human version of “Mad Cow” disease, may in fact be misdiagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease. On the topic of cows, what neuroanatomy and neurochemistry correlates with an adequate level of sentience for non-human organisms to experience love?

I think much like chaos theory, love can be theoretically calculated or profiled according to many complex biochemical interactions of time, but at this stage is incomprehensible to humankind. We explored all these ideas in creating this exhibition. But art is a subjective experience, and only you can tell us if we succeeded.

If you are interested in seeing our work, it will be on display for the next few weeks at the Melbourne Graduate School of Science in the David Caro Building. We will be having an opening night this Friday from 5:30pm. There will be (free) wine and snacks, so come and have a look.

*In no way do I condone heroin usage. For all its pros, there are too many weighty cons.

One Response to “Lovin’ science lovin’”

  1. Phuong says:

    I just love it how the thing we feel and experience are pretty much the same as the symptoms of psychiatric disorders. It gives new meaning to the phrase “madly in love”.

    I wondered if my background as scientist makes me to think it is funny that love is like a psychiatric disorder so I asked my partner who is not a “sciencey” person and he didn’t find it amusing.