Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Kissing your Sister, The Spandrel of Incest

It's something you would never anticipate, which ironically is the origin of the problem. It may be said that anticipation is half the pleasure, though at times it may be thought of as all the pleasure. We know this from anecdote and experience. Consider poor Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke on the aptly named Dick Van Dyke TV show) eating a chocolate cake while absorbed in conversation with his wife. Pausing in midphrase he said: "By the way, what is this, its delicious!" "You should know", she said, "That's your favorite dish, chocolate cake." Rob looked at the cake and cried out in horror: "Why didn't you tell me, I love that dessert!"

It may be argued that forgeting to anticipate a chocolate cake has a lot in common with learning not to anticipate it. After all, it may permit us to go about our lives undistracted by the myriad diversions of the world. Consider your kid sister, or your kid cousin, or the girl kid next door. Doubtless you would not want to kiss any of them or anticipate kissing any of them because you are not in the practice or 'habit' of doing so. But is habit or the incidental correlations perceived while growing up enough to overwhelm the sexual 'drive' that makes no distinction between kith and kin?

Awful Kissing Act

Sure, providing of course you realistically define the concept of 'drive'. By realistically I mean of course the real circuitry, as in the wiring of our cerebral noggin that accounts for the incentives from food to sex to sexy cars that get us from A to B. When we think of drives, we think of indivisible mind states, hardwired circuits, or chemical imbalances that are present from the time we expect something to the time we get something. That is, looking forward to a pie in he sky is similar to eating that pie, wanting is the same as having. Both are driven by the same processes, and if the having is instinctive, the wanting must be equally so. This is a commonplace and commonsensical reasoning by layman and academic alike. It is also wrong.

Pie in the Sky = Pie in a Plate?

In the last ten years neuroscience has demonstrated that 'drives' are bifurcated into two parts that are different psychologically and physiologically. That is, wanting is different from having (or liking), and each aspect represents different processes and corresponds to different laws. For the 'wanting' part, we feel alert, attentive, and pleasurably primed for action and sustaining action. The 'having' part, where we imbibe, engorge, or otherwise consume the object of our appetite feels good in a different way, and does indeed represent a different thing.

The neuropsychological differences between them both are strikingly clear. The 'wanting' part reflects the activity of 'neuromodulators', brain chemicals such as dopamine that control alertness, attentiveness, and because they have affective value (i.e. they feel good), keep us us on course. The having or 'liking' part engages neurotransmitters (opiods) that reflect gustatory, sexual, or other pleasures. Ironically, liking something or merely being aware that it tastes, smells, or feels good is not enough to spur behavior, one must also 'want' it. So how do you want? To wit, you must learn how to.

An interesting aspect about our wants, from food to sex, is that we want certain things at certain places and times. We don't want to eat ice cream before our main course, or pasta for breakfast (usually). And we don't for that matter want to kiss our sister, or any other playmates of the opposite sex either. And why not? Simple, because we never learned to, or more succinctly, never learned to anticipate or 'want' to.

When we are young, we hang around siblings or playmates in a decidedly non sexual context. Unfortunately, when we come around eventually to recognize that sex is quite nice, contextual relationships or habits get in the way, so we don't get primed to anticipate a hot date with the girl next door. In short, we don't 'want' to because sexuality was something we learned to 'un' anticipate. Having to learn in effect to 'want' to do nothing seems like a self defeating thing. After all, shouldn't the prospect of having something be enough for motivation? Well, no.

The conundrum of motivation, and the inspiration for motivational speakers, is that objects alone do not motivate unless we learn to anticipate them. But anticipation can be a seemingly mindless thing. We nonconsciously infer meaning and motive from the simplest correlations, like a chair made favorite because we sat there often. And like a behavioral currency, such correlations can be tendered to new situations, giving them a new perspective that can dampen and reverse desire.

Oedipus learned that the hard way. Having discovered that he was married to his mother, he put out his eyes. As another literary example, Moll Flanders became instantly disinterested in her husband when she learned he was her long lost brother, and subsequently abandoned hearth and home. As literary sense would have it those events that you never anticipated would lead to never more anticipating!

To want without having is a necessary and pleasurable part of our lives, as our dreams keep us awake and the pleasures of the world. However, to have without wanting is to be listless, without material or sensual desire. Like a spandrel or superstition, it's an unexpected side effect of learning that innocent correlations can dull one's very desires. It's a better explanation for habits, good and bad, and when writ large to include the chaste experiences of youth, a reason for you to never, never, expect to kiss your sister.

No comments: