Friday Weird Science Book Review: Dirty Minds by Kayt Sukel

Dec 09 2011 Published by under Book Reviews, Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

Society for Neuroscience meeting. Kayt and I hung out and I think she’s fantastic fun. Also, she gave me a tshirt.)

My ears perked up when I first heard that there was a book coming out called “Dirty Minds”. I mean, it’s about neurobiology. And it’s about SEX. And the author had an ORGASM in an fMRI. For SCIENCE. Totally up my alley, this stuff.

The book does not disappoint. But “Dirty Minds” is something of a misnomer. The book isn’t a down and dirty science of sex romp (though it does some of that). It’s not about “dirty” or really about sex, it’s about attachment, attraction, and love of all kinds, from the love that teenagers experience for the first time, to the love between a mother and a child, to the love that Carmelite nuns experience for God. Kayt talks about the study of “love” from the perspectives of people studying voles as well as those studying college students, and covers neurotransmitters and hormones along with brain connections and erections.

While most of the information in the book wasn’t new to me (I have, after all, been writing a Friday Weird Science feature for three years at this point, I’ve seen a lot), the average reader will learn a bunch about how attraction works, how different kinds of love may be the same, and something about the fine line between love and hatred. There are studies comparing Abercrombie and Fitch models to rare steak, new mothers to soldiers, and studying how college students would split up their Euros in a modified Prisoner’s Delimma game. You get to see what some of the greatest minds in the field of attachment studies have to say about what happens in the brain during passionate love. And you get to find out just what the voles have to do with it.

The book remains lighthearted and entertaining throughout, with some truly excellent passage of top science writing (the neurobiology of the voles is a particularly great section). Kayt weaves the narrative of science with her own relationship and parenting experiences, but never pretends to give advice or say we’ve found the answers. Instead, she learns along with the reader, making the experience that much more engaging, like you're learning things from a friend who just happens to gossip about all the really FUN scientific studies. On the whole the book is entertaining, informative and nuanced.

It does hit a few snags. With all the talk on attachment and parenting, and, well, “love”, the orgasm chapter almost begins out of left field! What is ORGASM doing in a book about love, anyway? Really, it makes a wonderful amount of sense, but the example highlights several sections where the transitions seemed to come a little out of nowhere.

There is also a chapter on homosexuality and transgender that runs into problems, though clearly Kayt avoided them as much as she could. It’s such an emotionally and often politically charged issue that it becomes almost impossible to carry such a chapter over with complete panache. This is mostly because of the science and the issue itself, the type of studies that have been done on homosexualiy are usually done with studies of hormones, fMRI, and theories about development. Kayt is always admirably careful about the fMRI studies, saying only that the areas are involved” or “light up”, and is always very careful not to overstep the data, but it’s in the nature of fMRI and hormone data to make people conclude things they shouldn’t, and interpret studies as they would like to see them rather than as they are, and so I think people will see this chapter through their own lens no matter how the science is conveyed. Because of this, the homosexuality chapter is going to be difficult no matter how you feel about the issue, but Kayt handled it in the best way possible.

Overall, Kayt casts a delicate and a skeptical eye on the studies of love and attachment, one which is intelligent and entertaining, and will make many readers think twice about picking up the next “what your body says about your commitment style” issue from Cosmo. The book is well written and fun, and a charming introduction for many people to the world of what neuroscience can do, as well as what it can’t. She emphasizes that the idea of “normal” encompasses an incredibly wide range of behaviors in terms of “love”. The neuroscience has taught us a lot, but it certainly hasn’t taught us everything. Anyone looking for a lively tour through what we do know should grab this book and settle in for a fun and interesting ride.

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