Sunday, March 21, 2010

If meadow voles could talk to tigers and humans…

We have all been reading reports of marital infidelities among prominent and high profile personalities, some of whom have been advised, or are seeking, sex therapy and sex counseling for their serial infidelities. Does such therapy and counseling work, would it have any effect, or is it just throwing good money after bad?

The conclusion to be drawn from work on the love life of voles (rodents) suggests that such counseling is, at best, fraught with difficulties, and at worst is useless.

I have given an account of some of this work in my book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain.

Meadow voles, unlike prairie voles, are notorious for their promiscuity, a behaviour that, in female meadow voles, has been directly linked to receptors for a neurohormone, oxytocin, which is critical in pair bonding and has an important relationship to the dopamine “feel-good” system in the brain.

Monogamous prairie voles have a good deal more of the receptors for oxytocin in their brains than do meadow voles. Injecting antagonists to oxytocin in prairie voles renders them promiscuous too. But injecting oxytocin into promiscuous meadow voles does not turn them into monogamous animals, because they just do not have enough receptors for oxytocin.

Hence, if meadow voles, shunned in a society of prairie voles, could communicate with humans or tigers (assuming there to be promiscuous tigers who seek sex counseling), they might tell them not to waste time or money but to seek pharmacological remedies instead.

Of course, voles are far removed from humans. Yet humans also have oxytocin (and vasopressin, another neurohormone closely linked to pair-bonding and more prominent in males).

I suggested in my book that differences in receptors for these neurohormones may similarly be critical for determining the extent of infidelities in humans.

In an article published in Nature last year, Larry Young, one of the pioneers in the study of the brain’s love system, writes that “Variations in a regulatory region of the vasopressin receptor gene, avpr1a, predicts the likelihood that a male vole will bond with a female”. He adds that in humans, “different forms of the AVPR1A gene are associated with variations in pair bonding and relationship quality. A recent survey shows that men with a particular AVPR1A variant are twice as likely as men without it to remain unmarried, or when married, twice as likely to report a recent crisis in their marriage.”

This is not good news for sex counselors in this domain. It suggests that modifying behaviour to make promiscuous men monogamous requires a more radical intervention than the spiritual and “psychological” counseling that sex therapists indulge in. There are of course deep ethical and biological objections to a more radical pharmacological intervention.

This is not to suggest that spiritual counseling does not work. It may, but my guess is that it only works in a very limited number of cases, and then only at a heavy price, of continual dis-satisfaction.

In the fight between biology and morality, biology has commonly won in the end.

I am not advocating promiscuity or monogamy, or anything else. All I am trying to convey is that, in regulating romantic relationships, and in framing laws that regulate such behaviour, account must be taken of biological realities.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

With the help of prominent shamans from Beverly Hill, they are making up false excuses trying to convince public and wives. Their marriages, normally, do not last for more then a year after “counselling”.
They are not going last longer, if he'll tell her: "Honey, I am chemically seduced to love you and only you, from now!" At last it is going to be the true.