The Complementarity of Love and Sex in the Brain

A historical side effect of falling in love has been increased production of love poetry. Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” shows us “the lover/ Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” The reason behind this may simply be that we humans feel the need to express strong emotions, especially positive ones like love. But could it be that being in love actually makes us more creative?

The answer is ‘yes,’ according to a recent study at the University of Amsterdam. The researchers were interested in seeing how thinking about love vs. thinking about sex could affect the way the brain processes information.  The participants, all college students, were primed either to think about love (separate from sex) or about sex (separate from love). This was done for the former group by having them think about taking a walk with their partner or by showing them words like “love” and “loving.”  The latter group was told to think about someone they were physically attracted to, or shown words like “sex” and “eroticism.” Both groups were then given a series of questions from the GRE to answer.

The results were that those in the “love condition” scored much better on the creative questions, while those in the “sex condition” scored better on the analytical questions, leading the authors to conclude that love and sex do indeed affect the way we think. Their explanation for these results draws on a distinction often made between two different ways that we can process information: local and global.

With local processing, you are very much in the present moment, focused and processing the details of your environment or whatever problem you’re contemplating. This state of mind lends itself to analytical thinking, where details and logical structure are important. With global processing, it’s as if your brain has hit the “zoom out” button and is seeing the larger picture. This enables you to think more holistically, make connections that you couldn’t before, and represent concrete objects as abstract concepts. Renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran spoke at Princeton recently, and he emphasized how making these less obvious connections is a key part of human creativity: it gives us the ability to relate higher-level concepts to one another, to generate and understand metaphors, and so on.

According to one theory, thinking about the long term is a way to trigger global processing. In this case, being in love often brings on thoughts about the long term: how you want to stay with your partner not just for months but for years to come, or what your plans are for your future together. These kinds of thoughts cause global processing to kick in. Sex, or relatedly, lust, triggers local processing and a concentration on the “here and now.” You have a more goal-oriented mindset and focus more on strategies and details.

Lest this be misinterpreted, one type of thinking is not “better” than the other. We need both creative and analytical thinking on an everyday basis, whether we’re deciding what classes to take, telling jokes, doing problem sets, or watching a movie with friends.
So the next time you catch yourself daydreaming about your beloved, you might as well take advantage of your state of mind. Crack open your laptop, and get started on that writing assignment due tomorrow – the creative energy won’t stay around forever.

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