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Making Love Logical: The Neurological Process of Love

There is a great deal of emphasis on love, especially in terms of romantic relationships, in our society. The so called “falling in love”, the wanting to be “in love”, and ending a relationship that once contained love are important phases for us, and ones that we spend a great deal of time talking and thinking about. Romantic relationships are an interesting phenomenon in society, as the pathway to one involving love is long and complicated, and so we may say “falling” or “ instantly fell” in love to avoid thinking about this long route. The associations with love, and all that the word brings to mind, makes it nearly, if not impossible, to define. While much research is still being done, there have been discoveries on the neurobiological basis for romantic love, involving an increase in specific chemicals, such as dopamine, which plays a major role in the reward system of the brain. Following these recent findings may make us better able to understand the effects of “love” on the brain, which has confused and baffled us through much, if not all, of human history.

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Book Commentary: Pale Blue Dot

Much of Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan, deals with looking at the Earth from a new perspective. In this perspective, we are, like in a lab we completed, new to this planet, in search of life or intelligence without any prior knowledge. Sagan discusses why this planet is so unusual, and the many oddities associated with it that can we see simply from looking and using basic measuring tools. This book overlaps with much of what we’ve discussed in the course, challenging what we’ve learned and accepted as basic knowledge. It’s a new kind of science that I was able to better understand with the idea of science as a story-telling, making this book particularly more useful to me now than it had been in the past.

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Why do we smile?


Smiles are generally accepted as a universal facial expression of happiness or joy. We get instincts about which smiles are more genuine, are more felt than others, and which are more forced and more politely construed. I wanted to find out whether smiles are a social reaction- something learned amongst society- or whether there’s an actual biological reason why, when we are given a positive stimulus, our cheeks bulge and the corners of our mouths turn upward. I started with the understanding that because it would be difficult or impossible to define happiness on an individual level, which I am taking to be the stimuli of the smiles themselves, the results would have to be more generalized and the findings would probably be somewhat controversial and less conclusive. I proposed that smiling was more directly linked to a physical, neurobiological response than to social interactions, because I assumed that there had to be some reason why even the most creative and brilliant of thinkers followed the rest and smiled to show pleasure.

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Love to Lose?

Competition is found in everything that we do. It’s a reason why we’re still alive, and it brings us highs and lows. Most will agree that the highs come from winning, and the lows, from losing. However, research has shown that these generalizations may not hold true, finding that some people feel more stress after winning than, as expected, after losing.

Studies were done at the University of Michigan to investigate competition and the brain’s response (1). One hundred and eight college students were taken and shown photographs, for example, of two men biking. They were then asked to write a response to each photograph. This was done to find the participant’s non-conscious need to dominate others, or, more formally, their ‘implicit power motive’ (2). The researchers found that a large group wrote about a competition between the two men, and another large group analyzed the bike situation more as a casual ride between two friends. From this, they grouped the people with the more aggressive responses into a “wolves group”, and those with the less aggressive responses into a “sheep” group.

The researchers then had the participants play a video game, after which each participant was told that he or she had won. After, the researchers measured each participant’s cortisol level, as they had done before the gaming had taken place, to gauge the participants’ levels of the stress hormone. They found a correlation between the stress levels of those at the extreme end of the wolves group, and those at the extreme end of the sheep group. The most aggressive wolves had significantly higher cortisol levels after losing, while the most sheepish sheep had higher levels after winning (1, 2). They concluded that some people, unconsciously, would rather lose than win.

I think that this study is interesting, in that it categorizes two groups of people and that the stress levels hold true at the extremes, but there’s a large intermediary group to account for, and that’s going to be harder to breakdown. The concepts of winning and losing are interesting, because, while winning implies being the best, there are always going to be people who weren’t the best, people who are then deemed ‘losers’ because of us and because of our triumph. There’s also the element of what is then expected of us- is more expected, which means more pressure, or is that pressure a motivator, something we need in order to strive for the best?

Breaking competition down further, I wanted to find what it is in the brain that controls competition levels, or what, as we so know it as, is responsible for some people having the urge to compete, and others being happier when everyone’s at the same level. I found that there’s a part of the brain, the amygdala, that has been found to have some distinguished response between winning and losing, and adds more solidity to the belief that different responses are chemically triggered when a person comes in either first or last.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons deep in the medial temporal lobes of the brain (3), may have control over how competitive a person is. This part of the brain, thought to primarily perform the role of processing the memories of emotional reactions, has been found to react to winning and losing differently (4). Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure regional brain activity when subjects were given feedback to their performance on small tasks, the researchers looked for a correlation between positive feedback and some response, and negative feedback and a different response. They found that the parametric increase of more positive feedback and having “winning” was associated with left amygdala activation, while the more negative parametric increase of “losing” was associated with right amygdala activation (4). This was used to show that the amygdala responds differently to the two types of stimuli, meaning that it has some role in the area of competition.

The amygdala, also thought to be partially responsible for binge-eating (5), men’s sex drives (6), the emotional aspect of fear (7), and many other things, plays an important role in understanding why we are the way that we are. In this study, the researchers found opposite sides of the amygdala responding when the participants were told that they had either won or lost. I wonder if there’s a way to further distinguish, and to correlate with the other study- to separate the “sheep” from the “wolves” in relation to which side of the amygdala responds in each situation. I would have expected less certainty from this study because of the findings that some people don’t actually like to win and so a different brain response might have been expected. Granted, this study assumes a positive association with winning and a negative association with losing, which is solely what the other study set out to distinguish.

Winning and losing are categories- categories that are associated with whatever connotation we have been brought up to believe. Being the best at something may be what we all strive for, our ultimate goal, but it’s interesting to think that we may not want what we actually are convinced we do. If a part of our brain is responsible for sending out certain hormones that make us stressed when we think we are happy, then there’s a major problem… or is there? If we are absolutely convinced that winning is the best, or close to it, and when we win, we think we’re happy, then does that need to change because of certain chemical evidence? Competition is constructive. It’s why there have been so many advances in the world, and why we push ourselves harder each time. We need to learn how significant the negative the effects of competition are on the body when someone is not able acknowledge his or her needs. If someone is the champion of some sport, and then is told that they don’t actually enjoy the thrill- that it produces stress- how much will that be worth? Are our strong conscious feelings worth ignoring our unconscious, chemical needs? As more research is being done as to why some people have a negative response to winning (when they think they are in fact happy), and how the brain controls this, we’re left to compete and win and lose, and decide how we feel, even if our brains disagree.

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