Monday, August 22, 2011

Choosing a Partner: Good Luck Deciding

On Thursday, Sept 8, I will be giving a talk here in San Diego to the International Bipolar Foundation. My presentation will be on relationships, which I am an expert in, having been in and out of two marriages. Following is a sneak peek, from a segment of my planned talk ... 

Last year, I decided to give internet dating a go. But there are limits in our capacity to think things though, which I discovered once I started checking out the available women on this particular dating site.

My prefrontal cortex simply refused to cooperate. It’s kind of like shopping for a car. We may think we’re smart, but ultimately we’re going to pick the model with the best cup-holder.

That’s the way our brains work. When all is said and done, it is the ventral tegmental area (VTA) that rules, not the parts of the brain we actually think with. The VTA is the dopamine-sensitive region in the midbrain that mediates pleasure and reward.

Helen Fisher of Rutgers has done studies on the brain in love and lust, so I’m not just making this up. Also, Jonah Lerher has written an excellent book, How We Decide.

So, using the new car example - Never mind price and practicality and all that, says the VTA in effect. Get the car with the best cup-holder.

The thinking parts of the brain are only there to rationalize the choice your VTA has already made. So - hopefully, when you get your new cup-holder-on-wheels back home, you find it comes equipped with things like seats and an engine that works.

This is why my best-laid plans for choosing a woman online were doomed from the start. The prefrontal cortex is simply incapable of making up its mind. It needs input from the emotional parts of the brain.

Which woman? The tree surgeon who has just finished reading Joseph Campbell or the martial arts black belt who teaches drama at a community college? See what I mean?

So we have to compensate. There is a very technical scientific term for how men and women decide who is right for them:

Anyway, here I was with a gridlocked brain. I needed visual - emotional - cues. "Tomatoe Girl!" something in my head cried out. This was a woman with no obvious interests whatsoever who spelled tomato with an e. Oh crap, I could only think.

"A wop-bop-a-loo-bop!" my VTA was screaming. My poor prefrontal cortex didn't stand a chance.

Let me back up a bit:

Other stuff was also going on in my brain. Over in the back end of the brain, my amygdala - fear central - was in league with my hippocampus and other centers of ancient memory, cranking out malicious sound bites for the amusement of my inner mother.

Suddenly, I was that short skinny nerdy high school kid with glasses at my first high school dance, on the gymnasium floor, Bobby Vinton's "Blue Velvet" crackling out of a crappy PA system, trying to summon the nerve to ask Marie Kapinsky to dance.

Meanwhile, over in the front end of the brain:

The brief my prefrontal cortex had assembled was bullet-proof: The men these women date own their own homes. They drive in cars with Bose Surround Sound.

But I don't want to die a virgin! was my best defense. Okay, that wasn't exactly accurate, but I was stalling for time. In desperation, I summoned "Tomatoe Girl," the woman with no obvious interests who couldn't spell tomato.

Instantly, the tenor of the conversation changed. My VTA was calling the shots. My amygdala and its henchmen were nowhere to be found.

She doesn't know how to spell tomato, my prefrontal cortex cut in.

And that's why she won't complain when I show up in a car that doesn't have a working radio, my same (and now dueling) prefrontal cortex shot back.

Weighing, measuring, weighing, measuring ...

Nothing good ever came from thinking with your favorite organ, my dueling prefrontal cortex let me know.

True, my dueling prefrontal cortex acknowledged. Bad marriages, failed relationships. I needed to change my pattern. In some way I couldn't comprehend but knew was true, Tomatoe Girl was part of my old pattern. On the other hand:

Who is the woman I want to be snuggled up with on the sofa right now?

Oh, crap! My entire prefrontal cortex was now in thrall to my VTA. Already, it was cooking up images of the two of us - me and Tomatoe Girl - curled up in a comfortable corner of her motor home (the corner that didn't need to be jacked up), sipping Jack Daniels from the same bottle and viewing reruns of NASCAR.

Fortunately, this is where choosing a soul-mate online differs from buying a car. Unlike my cup-holder on wheels, I couldn’t just take Tomatoe Girl home with me.

Thank heaven for that. My brain is not set up to look out for myself. Neither - I submit - is yours.

Anyway, the moral to this story: Good luck in making a decision.


All of you are invited to my talk. For further details, click the link below:

International Bipolar Foundation
Lecture: Relationships and Coping with the Day-to-Day Stuff

Thursday, Sept 8
5:30-6:00- SOCIAL
6:45-7:00- Q & A
Sanford Children's Research Center, Building 12
10905 Road to Cure, San Diego 92121 


Keith Anselm said...

Are my temporal lobes malfunctioning, or have I seen this post before? I remember your story of "Tomatoe Girl".

John McManamy said...

Hey, Keith. Your temporal lobes are fine. I did a series of Tomatoe Girl posts late last year, which I reworked and chopped down into my planned talk, plus I added some slides. Also, I cleaned up some of the language.