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Academic Whackoffery.

13 January 2014

Sometimes, you read something so spectacularly stupid that only an academic could have come up with it. The kind of idiocy that is only the product of a fertile mind. Someone who has thought long and hard about something, and done a great deal of analysis, decided they see a connection between to distinct concepts, and then run that into the ground without any apparent understanding of the second concept. We tend to see this a lot when academics try to do interdisciplinary work.

I am personally susceptible, because I’ve worked with medical scientists for so long that sometimes I start to think I have medical insights. I don’t. I’ve just talked a lot with people who do, and read a lot of literature. I don’t have any medical training. But that doesn’t stop me from sometimes talking as if I do.

But this weekend, Dave Shiffman alerted me to one of the most howlingly funny and absurdly idiotic examples of academic whackoffery I’ve read in a long time. Helen Fisher, PhD, is a research professor at Rutgers University, in the department of anthropology. A quick look at her CV and website suggests that Dr. Fisher is an erudite scholar on the topic of love, romance, sexuality, divorce, and evolution. I have no reason to doubt that she knows a great deal about those topics. What is glaringly absent from her CV is any history of research of substance abuse.

But Dr. Fisher doesn’t let that stop her from opining, in The Guardian, that the concept of addiction itself needs to be retired from the scientific lexicon. The reason she gives is a garbled mishmash of claims that romantic attraction – what I would call limerence – represents an addiction, and a positive one. Dr. Fisher’s point appears to be that because there are some vernacular correlates (and perhaps some neurological correlates) between how people talk and think about love and how people talk and think about substance abuse that… well, it gets unclear at that point.

She says that romantic love is a “positive addiction”. And that this addiction evolved 4,400,000 years ago in order to focus hominids on pair bonding in order to form nuclear families. I’m going to guess that that’s as much a political statement as a scientific one, but I’ll leave it up to anthropologists to argue.

She says that because we have nostalgia about our former partners, that’s like relapsing on a drug! That our obsessive thoughts about a new partner represent craving and withdrawal! Here’s the relevant passage from The Guardian:

In fact, besotted lovers express all four of the basic traits of addiction: craving; tolerance; withdrawal; and relapse. They feel a “rush” of exhilaration when with their beloved (intoxication). As their tolerance builds, the lover seeks to interact with the beloved more and more (intensification). If the love object breaks off the relationship, the lover experiences signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability and loneliness. Lovers, like addicts, also often go to extremes, sometimes doing degrading or physically dangerous things to win back the beloved. And lovers relapse the way drug addicts do: long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs or other external cues associated with their abandoning sweetheart can trigger memories and renewed craving.

This is distilled academic whackoffery at its absolute best. Some things are like some other things! I’m familiar with jargon! She goes on to say that she has unpublished data suggesting that some brain-scan results are similar as well. Now, I’m not super familiar with how fMRI works, but I know a lot of my readers are. If anyone can comment on this:

In fact, our group has found activity in the nucleus accumbens – the core brain factory associated with all addictions – in our rejected lovers. Moreover, some of our newest (unpublished) results suggest correlations between activities of the nucleus accumbens and feelings of romantic passion among lovers who were wildly, happily in love.

I’d love it. To me, it sounds like: “This thing in the brain does things when love or addiction!” Which does not surprise me at all, and does not at all sound like evidence that love is an addiction.

Here’s an absolutely crucial difference: progression. Addictions to substances are characterized by progression and tolerance. While Dr. Fisher mentions tolerance in the quote above, that’s not at all the same concept. Now, I don’t dispute that people can become obsessed with a partner/romantic object (that word “object” being key… a person seen as a substance rather than as a person), and feel like time with them is not enough.

Tolerance of a substance means that intake of a volume of a substance delivers diminished effects, resulting in increased intake. There are physical reasons for it. Progression means that despite advancing damages to the body and mind, we continue to consume more and more until, inevitably, we die without some intervention. Whereas the “tolerance” and “progression” that Dr. Fisher would have us see in love are naturally resolving! Who feels the same obsessive need, affection, and desire for their mate after 5 years as they did in the first months of interaction?

Sure, many still feel powerfully attracted, very much in love, and deeply satisfied. And that’s wonderful. Some feel hateful and resentful. Some feel indifferent. But if a mate were a drug, and love were an addiction, the feelings of obsession and desire and need would be monotonically increasing. This by itself substantially falsifies Dr. Fisher’s ridiculous assertion.

But the deeper reason it’s all so absurd is hard – for me, at least – to lay out in any kind of scientific way. And that’s to say this: they don’t feel the same. The desire for a drink, and the desire for a mate feel nothing alike. The withdrawals are nothing alike. The “use” of the “drugs” are nothing alike. I’ve been in the throes of terminal alcoholism. And I’ve been in the midst of joyous, blinding, brilliant, waste-laying limerence. They’re nothing alike.

She may be a renowned scholar on love, I don’t know. But Dr. Fisher knows, apparently, very little about substance abuse. She doesn’t betray any understanding of how it feels to be addicted to a substance. She’s an academic (and a famous one, apparently) who has an idea that a thing is like another thing. And she’s perfectly happy to say ridiculous things in support of her ill-conceived hypothesis.

As academics, many of us like to think that because we’re experts in a particular field, we must also be experts in related (or seemingly – to us – related) fields. We’re not. And it’s nothing but jargon-laced masturbation to convince ourselves otherwise.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Bashir permalink
    13 January 2014 10:08

    With regard to the fMRI. This whole “these two tasks involve the same brain area” is often a exaggeration. What can be concluded simply based on similar fMRI data is not much. You can make the very general conclusion that the same brain area is “involved”. But that’s a bit like saying your hand is involved in both playing the piano and throwing a baseball. True, but that doesn’t say too much about both tasks being similar.

  2. 13 January 2014 15:59

    Wow, that’s terrible! Talk about extrapolating too much from correlation. Sheesh.

  3. Syd permalink
    13 January 2014 17:00

    I remember something about a similar hypothesis being addressed in a series on Addiction–basically relating to how the brain reacts with love and how it reacts with drugs. Neuroscientists working out of Concordia University in Canada appear to have shown that love and sexual desire activate separate but related areas of the brain. This seems to indicate that there’s a cognitive basis for these feelings, and that they’re distinct from each other. They also discovered that the part of the brain responsible for love is the same area that lights up when a person becomes addicted to drugs — leading researchers to conclude that love is habit-forming. But I don’t see at all how one could conclude that love and addiction are the same thing.

  4. 13 January 2014 22:32

    That’s a perfect example of neurobollocks!

  5. 14 January 2014 08:24

    I don’t know. I’ve seen Helen Fisher use the addiction analogy before, and I’ve asked folks who study addiction if they see it as appropriate. And they said the same thing – the analogy falls short. But most analogies do. If two phenomena overlapped perfectly, there would be no need for an analogy. That’s probably sufficient to say. And, her Guardian piece said she wasn’t against the concept of addiction per se, but the idea that all addictions were pathological.

    I won’t defend her completely. Her writing can be frustratingly speculative (to imply that love popped up 4.4 mya is an example, Really? How can one be so specific?) and oversimplified in places, particularly when writing for a general audience. In other forums, she can be more nuanced. But she is trying to take on a pretty complex topic. I don’t blame her for reaching for an analogy to help her make sense of it, even if it has its shortcomings.

    • 14 January 2014 08:28

      Analogies are fine. I don’t mind using addiction as an analogy for love. See Robert Palmer. But she isn’t just making an analogy. She’s making several specific scientific claims which are blatantly absurd.

  6. 14 January 2014 09:52

    While I understand your point and frustration, I think it’s important to remain objective when you’re judging someone else’s work. Especially if they are putting themselves out there. Is not easy taking risks. Calling someone else’s conclusions ‘absurdly idiotic’ and ‘whackoffery’ isn’t objective.

    I think your opinion would be better received in a more objective light.

    • 14 January 2014 09:57

      I don’t make claims as being scientifically objective here: I’m not an anthropologist or an addiction scientist. But I am trained in the scientific process and can recognize a bad one. And when people promulgate stupid, perhaps dangerous, ideas about substance abuse, I reserve the right to call them stupid.

      I respect the argument about tone, and have made it myself. But I’m not trying to politely convince Dr. Fisher that she’s wrong here. I’m trying to illustrate manifest foolishness to others.

  7. 15 January 2014 08:29

    This reminds me of people claiming some random personal violation to be “just like being raped.” Funny, no one who has ever been raped says such a thing.

    Likewise, no one who has suffered an addiction would compare anything to the degrading, life-threatening, often fatal experience.

  8. 15 January 2014 11:08

    I’d love her to meet people who work at the coalface of addictions therapy with those people with substance addiction and process addiction. I’m no authority here but I’ve been there for some period 24 x 7 when I was myself in a rehab with a collection of addicts.

    One thing I can say from my experience listening to the people with relationship addiction issues was that the person was an “object” – it wasn’t love. They simply were using the other person to totally fulfil their needs there was no consideration of the other person and their feelings etc. I felt really sad as these people had little if no working concept of a loving fulfilling relationship based on mutual benefit. They used.

  9. Aimee permalink
    15 January 2014 15:54

    Your comments seems spot on. But i wonder about your thoughts on sex addiction, which of course is a whole different concept only superficially related to the idea of love itself as an addiction (an idea which i emotionally reject). In sex addiction, or gambling or shopping addiction for that matter, a behavior takes the place of a substance and seems to provoke destructive changes in the subject’s life as does substance addiction. Thoughts?

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