on the dangers of kissing

Last night I fell asleep to the sound of my neighbors arguing. I don’t really know them, though they’re friendly on the rare occasion Roscoe and I meet them in the hallway. They are never noisy. Until last night, they were a practically invisible presence in my life. But when I heard her crying, the kind of crying you only do when you think no one is listening, when you find yourself in that strange, desperate place between love and frustration, I felt…sad and a bit sick.

I’ve spent the summer blissfully removed from that feeling. Even as I have tried to remember, to write about the moment J and I finally decided to move apart, I’ve failed. The dialogue sounds tinny, the tone melodramatic. All I could come up with was a single, strange image: the moment the ball breaks through the glass instead of bouncing off of it. Something broken, something changed that can’t be repaired. Maybe I can’t tell the story, I thought, because it just wasn’t as momentous as it felt. Because the argument was barely an argument, just a disagreement about how we’d spend our Saturday. And maybe I shouldn’t explain it, I told myself, because in the end isn’t it always the mundane that drives us apart?

Though I couldn’t even hear their words, the tones of my neighbors’ voices validated the feelings which just last week had seemed so distant and overwrought to me. I lay in bed reading and trying not to listen, and thinking how grateful I was not to feel like that.

I spent yesterday afternoon reading about the brain. The research on the literal, physiological chemistry of love is too complex for a single blog post. Several chemicals and neural systems are involved and new research is always amending what we think we know about the mysteries of the heart, which in fact all reside in the brain. But understanding a little bit about it helps us to understand a lot about how love stories function in our lives.

Neuron, by Roxy Paine

First there are mirror neurons, the cellular basis of empathy–at least that’s the most popular theory at present. They appear to be far more complex than most brain cells, which respond to a single frequency, sound, or image. The same mirror neurons fire when we pick up a mug to drink from it, when we see another person drink from a mug, when we think about drinking, and when we say the word “drink.” Some scientists believe mirror neurons explain why we love fiction, and, by extension, movies, songs, stories of all kinds. So it’s likely then that when we hear a midnight argument and feel a kind of unbearable empathy, that’s our mirror neurons at work. They’re why when, in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze says, “No one puts Baby in a corner,” we grin goofily, as if he’s speaking those words to us. They might explain why we love love stories: our brains feel temporarily like we’re the ones in love.

Which brings me to dopamine. Continue reading

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Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

Last Friday night I saw the Bon Iver show at Deer Lake Park. It was my first warm summer evening in Vancouver, and I was feeling simultaneously happy and sad in that wistful way one inevitably feels as the sun sets over a lake and the sound of a nine-man band—including two full drum kits!—echoes through the leafy branches. The experience has gotten me thinking about the things that move us.

Take this, for example:

When Justin Vernon’s voice cracks as he sings “Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” it just nails me. Shirt to skin to sternum to aorta. Over the past five days, I’ve probably listened to “Skinny Love” twenty or thirty times. Because I want to understand something about the aesthetics of love, something about how a song or a poem or a love story can make us feel, and something about the legitimacy of that feeling.

I’ve always thought that the difference between love (of the regular affectionate variety) and romance (the more spectacular, dreamy kind), was an aesthetic difference. My most romantic memories seem to be predicated on the beauty of a particular moment: The empty pebble beach, the gleaming Aegean Sea, and the limestone cliffs. The setting is so aggressively beautiful that if you visit it with the man you love, it is not possible to care who did or did not wash that morning’s dishes. That’s romance: He is the landscape. So are you.

What is both powerful and problematic about love songs is that they make us feel like we’re the ones on the beach, when in actuality we’re living another person’s romantic moment vicariously. Love songs annihilate any suspicions we may have that our feelings don’t matter, that they are only atoms organized into neurons that shoot chemicals across our brains. Continue reading