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Some people lose all sense of rationality as soon as a brain chemical is mentioned. For instance, in the middle of an otherwise good Cracked article:

It makes perfect sense — the emotion we call “anger” or “hate” is a part of our evolutionary fighting instinct, so to prepare us for the battle, it pumps us full of anesthetic to block the pain and releases the pleasure chemical dopamine to ease our fears about fighting the tiger/tribesman/drunken Red Sox fan who is threatening us. Incidentally, these are the same two chemicals that are released when you smoke crack.
Quite simply, hate gets you high.

…No, that really doesn’t follow.

Dopamine exists for a reason. It is not the Give People Highs system. It is thought to be related to pleasure and a sense of well-being and to be a sort of “reward system” for doing things that helped your ancestors survive and make more babies. It’s like giving yourself a Skittle every time you answer an email. In this model, taking cocaine is like eating all the Skittles without answering any emails at all; it circumvents what the dopamine system is supposed to do. Saying that everything that involves the dopamine system is addictive is literally saying that every time you feel happy about or want something you’re addicted to it.

Of course, it’s possible hating people gets you high! But you have to answer all kinds of questions like “how much dopamine is released?” and “is ‘high’ a useful model to deal with hatred?” and “do people seem to get high when they hate people?” You can’t just declare it so because dopamine is involved.

Or consider oxytocin:

Why would it matter to us young men that oxytocin, which is released in women’s bodies on occasions of physical intimacy, is known to cause emotional attachment and increased trust?… The release of oxytocin that our intimate behavior with a woman could stimulate may have effects well beyond what she imagined when consenting to such physical intimacy.  The imbalance in emotional connection between us men and women in these circumstances in which there is no committed relationship can easily cause emotional issues that are hard to foresee.

Things that are true: oxytocin is released from women’s bodies (and men’s bodies) after sex. It’s also released during childbirth, breastfeeding, snuggles, and hot showers. (The general rule of oxytocin-related discussion is to replace everything they say with “hot showers” and see if it still makes sense.) Oxytocin is also possibly related to increased trust, reduced fear, increased empathy, and improved memory, particularly for social information.

But here’s the thing: oxytocin has been released in women’s brains when they have sex since long before we knew oxytocin was a thing. Assuming that she’s not a virgin or very inexperienced, if a woman tends to get attached to men after sex, she would have already recognized that and incorporated it into her “should I have casual sex?” decision-making process. The fact that getting attached after sex happens because of a brain chemical rather than because of crazy random happenstance doesn’t actually change anything.

Further exciting example, this time related to music:

As chills grow in intensity, bloodflow increases between areas of the brain associated with euphoria-inducing vices like food, sex, and drugs.

Or to put it another way: “like drugs, food, and sex, music makes people happy.” Music causes physical changes in the brain, like literally everything else on the planetbecause all of thought and emotions happen through physical changes in the brain. This is not remotely exciting, important, or news.

“This emotion happens in this circumstance because of this brain chemical!” actually doesn’t give you any new information about the emotion itself. It tells you interesting things about how the brain works and what assorted chemicals in the brain do. But knowing the physical process behind something doesn’t mean that the thing is any more valid, important, or real than it was before we knew the physical process.

I’m not saying that knowing the physical process isn’t important. It is, of course it is, and neuroscience is an incredibly exciting field with some groundbreaking discoveries. I am a fan of science reporting about “scientists find neurotransmitter that plays a key role in getting people to want things.” I am just not a fan of “brain chemicals secretly mind control women into falling in love.”

So I suggest an exercise. Every time you read something that mentions brain chemicals or brain scans, rewrite the sentence without the sciencey portions. “Hate makes people happy.” “Women feel closer to people after sex.” “Music makes people happy.” If the argument suddenly seems way less persuasive, or the news story way less ground-breaking… well. Someone’s doing something shady.

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