Thursday, July 4, 2013

Asexual and scientific classifications of love

This post was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.  Because of the audience over there, I assume readers have knowledge of asexual models of attraction, but do not assume knowledge of Helen Fisher's model.

Asexual communities are renowned for building complicated models of love and attraction.  These models are formed through the decidedly non-scientific processes of listening to lots of anecdotes and mass speculation.  There are definitely some weaknesses to the process, but it's quite valuable for what it is.

Scientists have their own models of love and attraction, formed independently and through different methods.  The strengths of the scientific method and that used by asexual communities complement each other.  Wouldn't you like to compare the results?

Though there are likely many models created by scientists, I will stick to the model of love defined by Helen Fisher.*  She classifies three emotional systems used in mammalian mating and reproduction: lust, attraction, and attachment.  Not all mammals have all three emotional systems, but they exist in all human cultures studied.

Lust is also known as sex drive or libido, is the urge for sexual consummation.  Lust is associated with estrogens and androgens, and with activity in the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Attraction is an emotional system which causes an individual to prefer courtship with a specific other individual.  This saves on resources used for courting and provides a fitness benefit if the attraction is directed at mates who will produce more fit offspring.  In humans, it is also known as passionate love, romantic love, and obsessive love.  Attraction is associated with increased activity in dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreased activity in serotonin in various parts of the brain. There is a long list of symptoms associated with attraction:
  • The loved one takes on special meaning
  • An inability to love other individuals
  • Intrusive thinking about loved one
  • Crystallization, or tendency to focus only on the loved one's positive qualities
  • Quickly changing psychophysiological responses including euphoria, sleeplessness, shyness, flushing, butterflies in the stomach, dilated pupils, accelerated breathing, and anxiety.
  • profound empathy for loved one
  • sexual desire for the loved one
In humans, attachment is also called companionate love.  It's basically the emotion which keeps long-term partners together.  It's associated with feelings of calm, security, and emotional union with the partner.  Neurologically, it associated with oxytocin and vasopressin in certain parts of the brain.

This model can be compared to asexual models of attraction.  Asexuals have this concept of sexual attraction, which is distinguished from sex drive and also from other forms of attraction, most notably romantic attraction.  There's also the concept of romantic relationships vs platonic relationships, with some people desiring one, both, neither, or not fitting within the distinction.  And then there are crushes, which are a specific component of romantic attraction, and squishes, which are the platonic equivalent.  How's that for a quick summary?

It's interesting that both asexuals and Helen Fisher draw a distinction between attraction and sex drive.  Although in my view that distinction is not drawn on precisely the same lines.  I would say sexual attraction is those feelings which causes you to desire sex with people you see out and about, or perhaps only with particular individuals that seem attractive to you.  But that's really two definitions, the first one falling within Fisher's lust, and the second one being one of the symptoms of Fisher's attraction.**

Some of the other symptoms of Fisher's attraction, we might refer to crushing or squishing.   And of course, crushes and squishes are part of larger wholes, romantic attraction and platonic attraction respectively.  But asexuals don't seem to distinguish between companionate and passionate love.  I personally think they should, because my own experience is that passionate love very neatly describes that which I don't experience, more so than "sexual attraction".

For fun, I drew a visual summary of my comparison, though there are many ways to draw it differently.

[Transcript: In blue I show Fisher's model, which includes Lust, Attraction, and Attachment.  In red I overlay an asexual model, with Sex Drive being part of Lust, Sexual Attraction being part of Lust and of Attraction, and Platonic Attraction and Romantic Attraction each covering part of Attraction and Attachment.]

It's natural to ask why the models are different, and if the models are compatible with each other.  I believe there are lots of valid distinctions between the different components of love and attraction, and the different models simply highlight different sets of distinctions.  Note that each model also contains finer distinctions that I ignored for simplicity.

The distinctions drawn by Helen Fisher are between different emotional systems associated with different chemicals in different parts of the brain.  They're distinctions that become apparent in cross-species research.  The distinctions drawn by asexuals are mostly social distinctions.  If some particular component of attraction is noticeably missing in a set of people, and it's socially useful to talk about that component, then asexuals will put a name to it.

And of course the categories associated with different chemicals are not identical to the categories associated with sets of traits that are commonly missing.  After all, it's not the chemicals themselves which are commonly missing!  I don't know anything about neuroscience, but surely there are lots of other possibilities, like neuroreceptors in some part of the brain behaving differently, I don't know.  It's also likely that there are many different neurological differences that are socially useful to group together, thus why asexuals don't make use of every distinction found in neuroscience.

As I said, the scientific and asexual models complement each other.  I hope the comparison has expanded your conceptual world.


*If you're interested in reading into this, I first recommend Helen Fisher's TED talkThis post also uses lots of paraphrasing of the following references:

Fisher, H. Lust, attraction and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature 1998, vol. 9, No. 1, pp.23-52.
Fisher, H. The drive to love: The neural mechanism for mate selection. ed. by R.J. Stenberg and K. Weis. The New Psychology of Love, 2006.

These references were kindly suggested by Massimo Pigliucci and Ronnie de Sousa.

**The truth is that most asexual models involve multiple definitions and lots of fuzzy lines.  No doubt the same is true in scientific research, but of course it looks much more unified when I only consider the studies done by a single researcher, Helen Fisher.