Kayt Sukel's highly readable book, Dirty Minds, is one of the more unique science books I've read in quite some time. I've always wondered what love actually consists of at a scientific level - what chemicals are involved and how things actually work. What is lust? What's love? What is romance?
Sukel jumps headlong into the science of it all - from the brain juggling hormones and neurochemicals and what goes on in the brain at the chemical level and the brain's reward system. What about romance and love (of all types)? Or even just attraction? Well, that's a bit more complicated. The book takes us on a journey from models to nuns to what exactly goes on during sex.
What I liked about the book is that it's not only an easy read due to the author's handling of scientific jargon, but that the book is also a self-discovery. Sukel learns along with us as we read in order to figure out what is going on between our ears. She also puts a good number of personal anecdotes into the book, making it also a personal odyssey as well as a scientific journey to understand one of the greatest mysteries out there: love and sex.
(review based off of an author-provided advanced release copy)
on January 3, 2012
I was one of those kids who took biology because the instructor was cute; I was more of a history gal. But this book has changed my mind about both science and its suitability for recreational reading. This is not a dry, by-the-numbers read, but instead Sukel writes about the sciences of attraction and sex and emotion and how they intersect with verve, style and a whole lot of courage. The description of having an organism "for the record" is priceless and fascinating.
I recommend Dirty Minds to readers who love science, to readers who think science is boring (Sukel proves that it's not at all boring!) and to anyone with an inquiring mind. It's sassy, fun, educational and informative all at one time.
on January 4, 2012
I did not expect to be so entertained by such a book that is primarily about brain research but the author's witty style, laced with personal experiences made this an absorbing read that was, at times, laugh out loud funny. I had enjoyed the author's travel pieces on her travelsavvymom website so based on that, I purchased this, her first book. I thought reading about brain science would be a character building experience for me but it was actually quite fun and I learned something along the way.
on January 16, 2012
I had so been waiting for this book to come out and it didn't disappoint. After growing up in a somewhat - hello more than somewhat - dysfunctional family and having really bad relationships pretty much all my life, I looked to this book as a guide to help myself overcome the usual habits I follow when in a relationship - any relationship.
This isn't a relationship book per se. This is a source to understand our relationships and how our brains react or don't react to what we think our heart wants and body desires. Just knowing and understanding the science of what is going on gives me peace of mind that it isn't that I am unloveable but I have been placing so much weight on how someone reacts to me that I neglected how I truly felt and reacted to myself and to them, and I just haven't found the one who I can be me with and let go of the games I play with myself, much less the games we play with each other. Where was this book 30 years ago?
I have read the book and am reading it a second time - with my current boyfriend, and my male and female friends alike - and the discussions we have been able to hold about the book and each other are witty, open, informative, and so looked forward to by all.
Learning something new is always a great thing for everybody - learning something new and understanding more about yourself at the same time is the topping on the cake.
It's a whole new way to understand who you are and why you love the way you do.
Every book is written from a perspective. This one is from the perspective of a divorced mother of a five-year-old who is still quite interested in sex and/or marriage. Kayt Sukel is a thoroughly modern woman. She is career-oriented and successful. She has made a mark in the highly competitive world of authoring articles for quality magazines, and with this she makes her book debut.
Although her mastery of the science of sex sets her apart, Sukel's thinking is quite mainstream for modern American campuses. There is nothing that will challenge prevailing views. She starts out by defining love. Rather, she discourses at length on how difficult it is to arrive at a single definition.
One theme that recurs in several chapters in his the idea that sexual love involves at least three separate elements. One is pure lust, which can most closely be explained by the brain chemicals, hormones and genetic factors that she describes. Second is the feeling of being in love, the butterflies in the stomach, distracted sort of feeling that comes of being head over heels. The third is the deep, long-term commitment.
She explains all of these through the use of diagrams of areas of the brain. Our reptilian brains are in control of our most basic functions, and more lately evolved portions drive the reasoning processes which channel and control the reptilian. Although it may not be interesting exactly which areas light up under which stimuli, the very fact that sexologists and neurologists can develop that accurate picture of what's going on in the brain is really pretty amazing. In her chapter on orgasm, she modestly presents a time series of images of her own brain as she was wired into an MRI. Scientists definitely have a clue what's going on in there.
All that said, the brain is a highly complex organ. There are large numbers of chemicals: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin to name three, each of which fills multiple functions. There are receptors for these chemicals, which may in turn do double duty, servicing two or more of them. Hormones govern the release of them, singularly or in groups. Even at a chemical level, it is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions. This is one of Sukel's strong points. She is content to describe the science as it stands, without feeling a need to stretch beyond what scientists know. In saying that scientists do not know what makes people fall in love, what makes love last, and what exactly pheromones are and do.
She talks about a rhesus monkey named Casanova was able to suppress his desire to mate in the interests of maintaining his social standing within a rhesus community into which he had been recently introduced. Not knowing the lay of the land, so to speak, he refused to get involved with the females came on to him. This is a very telling episode. It indicates that even in our primate relatives, and presumably our ancestors, reason and the upper hand over lust. We can control our emotions. She goes on to credit us with generally knowing when to keep our pants zipped and to avoid adventures that will jeopardize our relationships, our social standing and our pocketbooks.
Sukel's last chapter deals with love of divine beings, the love of God and others. It is curiously narrow. She talks about the way that love manifests itself in the individual - the same kinds of chemical and hormonal involvement as romantic love. She does not talk about it at all from the perspective of religious people. It is useful to note that fundamentalists preachers talk ad nauseum about the three Greek words for love: eros, filios, and agape, if I remember them right. One is romantic, the second is brotherly, and the third is love of all mankind. There is kind of a misfit here: she speaks of believers loving Christ as a person, whereas Christians speak of three different ways of loving one another, but no special way of loving Christ except "with all your heart."
The question of how religious people love is interesting because however misguided their beliefs, religious people seem to be the only ones who are successful in creating offspring and passing their beliefs on down to those offspring. Whatever one may think of Mormons and Muslims, one has to respect the fact that they breed true. The rest of us do not. This is a factor which is not even discussed in Sokel's book. I think it is relevant: the evolutionary purpose of sex is actually procreation, not self-fulfillment or recreation. If you do not have offspring, and do not raise them to have their own offspring, your seed dies out. There is some kind of love involved in the process. I doubt that it can be defined very well by hormones and chemicals, but I think that there is more research to be done on the higher functions of the brain involved in religious love, and then channeling Sokel's three forms of love - lust, romance and devotion - into the process of creating and nurturing the next generation.
In a book which refuses to take a strong stand on any issue Sokel goes out of her way to stress that the chemical reactions involved in homosexual love are pretty much identical to those in heterosexual love. She repeats the claim that gay people are pretty much that way from birth. This is the best supported statement of the claim that I have encountered. Her certainty on this one issue seems rather inconsistent with her refusal to take sides on other issues, but it does give strong credence to the gay community's claims.
I include Sokel's table of contents below to help the reader assess the content of the book.
Chapter 1: The Neuroscience Of Love: A History
Chapter 2: The Ever Loving Brain
Chapter 3: The Chemicals Between Us
Chapter 4: Epigenetics (Or It Is All My Mother's Fault)
Chapter 5: Our Primates, Ourselves (Or Why We Are Not Slaves To Our Hormones
Chapter 6: His And Her Brains
Chapter 7: The Neurobiology Of Attraction
Chapter 8: Making Love Last
Chapter 9: The Mommy (And Daddy) Brain
Chapter 10: Might As Well Face It, You're Addicted To Love
Chapter 11: Your Cheating Mind
Chapter 12: My Adventures With The O Team
Chapter 13: A Question Of Orientation
Chapter 14: Stupid Is As Stupid Loves
Chapter 15: There's A Thin Line Between Love And Hate
Chapter 16: The Greatest Love Of All
Conclusion: A Brave New World Of Love
on May 18, 2012
What is love?
Is it an emotion? A drive? A biological imperative? A neurochemical cocktail? A brain-changing response? A drug? An enigma?
Love is as challenging to define as it is to study. In her book _Dirty Minds_, Kayt Sukel attempts to gain some clarity by getting her hands dirty in the latest findings on the neurobiological basis of love. Hoping to illuminate how our brains influence love, sex, and relationships, she attempts to:
"Explain what neuroscience has actually learned about the various ways our brains can affect our hearts--and what those findings mean within the context of human behavior....If nothing else, I hope to offer you a better understanding of why we humans act so strangely when it comes to that crazy little thing called love." (p. xviii)
Not surprisingly, she learns that the science of love is more of an art. And, a messy one at that. (It's closer to an improvisational splatter paint process than it is a paint-by-the-number one.)
As Kayt learns from her research:
"Though we may wish it were so, there are simply no easy answers when it comes to love. There is no clever playbook for navigating love's messier situations; there are no promises to be revealed by five-step magazine stories or brain chemistry supplements. The brain is too complicated for that." (p.244)
But, she is able to offer a clear explanation as to why there is no clear explanation for describing how our brains work in love. First, our brains are plastic and are constantly changing through our lives with every new experience and relationship we have. Our brains are also incredibly complex, and each kind of love we have (be it romantic, sexual, or attachment) creates it own unique pattern of brain activation with its own blend of neurochemicals (including oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, estrogen, and testosterone) which interact and cross-talk in all kinds of ways with each other. Adding to this messy mix is the effect of context: our brain biology is profoundly influenced by our environment and relationships. And, the convergence of this plasticity, complexity, and context results in each of us having our unique brain experience of love, as reflected in our individual epigenome, neurochemicals, and behaviors.
Although this neurological complexity makes our loving brains hard to study, predict, and understand, it ultimately allows for us to be flexible, discerning, adaptable, social, and resilient. And, what's not to love about that?
So, if you're seeking easy answers to questions about the neuroscience of love, you won't get that here. (Reality check: you probably won't be able to find that anywhere.) But, if you want to gain an appreciation for why love can be so messy, indulge your dirty mind here!
on May 16, 2012
Kayt Sukel's brief, succinct, humorous, and thoroughly scientific book about love, sex, and relationships is well worth the price of admission. Though a trifle technical in spots (you'll become more familiar than you perhaps want to be with terms like ventral pallidum, ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus), Sukel's skill as a science writer, and warmth as a human being, will keep you from running permanently aground on technical lingo.
Dirty Minds is no small achievement. Though providing excellent and cogent results of contemporary research on emotion and the variety of forms of love (ranging from immediate sexual gratification to life time partnerships), Sukel never denies the mystery and wonder of the actual experience of being in love. Or in lust. Or simultaneously both.
Sukel is more careful than most, when presenting the results of provocative studies, to provide abundant qualifiers, and careful instructions about the dangers of over generalizing. Nevertheless, when one is done with this book, one will never listen to a friend obsess about his/her new love without thinking about the neurohormonal storm, and the highly fired up parts of the friend's neuroanatomy that are contributing to the (usually) temporary loss of sanity that the friend is in the grips of. In the same way that the steadily increasing knowledge about what, on a hormonal and neuroanatomical level, leads to depression and subsequent treatment options, Dirty Minds allows either the victim of one of Cupid's arrows, or the witness to a friend or family member similarly pierced, to actually take an informed course, if one is required or desired.
Without being sensationalistic, Sukel raises ethical issues. As the neuro chemistry/anatomy of love (all forms) becomes increasingly clear, it also becomes clear that "treatment" might be available for the lovesick. Are we ready for either a very effective Love Potion #9, or a very effective ANTI-Love Potion #2? If your teenager was in love with an undesirable person, would you consider slipping a medication that could end that obsession into their soft drink? Not idle speculation, based on the research Sukel presents.
Finally, kudos to Sukel for her humility, her openness about her own experiences, and her simple and warm celebration of the human experience. Her writing is a wonderful example of what happens when you merge competent science with liberal arts skills.
on December 11, 2012
Kayt Sukel's Dirty Minds is a book about neuroscience that has questions, not answers. That alone should be enough reason for you to pick it up. Sukel's agenda is not to tell her reader how the human mind works. It is to convince her reader that our minds are complicated messes - they are dirty, in the cleanest sense of the term1. Our mind is the result of a rat's nest of neurons bathed in a complex soup of hormones interacting with our environment. The point is not that our dirty minds have been solved, but that they are so damned interesting.
If you need another reason, a lot of the book is about sex2. Really, it is about research into the neurological basis of love. It covers relationships, parenting, even a wee bit of religion, and sex; but, when you say "and sex", you might as well say "it's about sex".
Sukel helps her reader understand the history of neurological study of love, the process of discovery, complications of the research, where research is heading, and the limits of our understanding. In doing so, Sukel does not give in to the temptation to present the human mind as a pristinely evolved tool, the epitome of adaptation to one's environment. It is instead a kluge, built haphazardly on top of what previously existed. It is "dirty". Dirty Minds presents complex question without simple answers - well, without answers at all, just suggestions, hints.
The book feels like a discussion about love and sex one might have over coffee with friends, not a neurologist. The choice to use accessible language, instead of technical jargon, was a good one, especially when dealing with the sensitive and complex issues of love, sex, and the mind. Technical jargon can streamline discussions between colleagues, but it is also intimidating, inaccessible, and can make folks feel stupid3. On the other hand, I am more used to the neurologist and found the casual language distracted me at times. I think most of my pedantic quibbles with Dirty Minds can be traced back to the use of such casual language, speaking of which...
Epigenetics is presented as the major mechanism for generating difference in gene expression between individuals. While certainly important, this ignores a number of other fascinating mechanisms, such as transcription factors and alternative splicing of RNA, that can generate variability in gene expression between individuals and cells. In keeping with the theme of Dirty Minds, variation in gene expression is even more complicated than presented.
Sukel uses the cliché of nature versus nurture in two variations to emphasize that the neurobiology of love is extremely complicated and that the research is still developing. It is also a trope of popular neuroscience that authors are almost required to include to help orient their readers. I do feel that those goals could have been achieved in both cases with more nuance.
First is the classic nature versus nurture framed as biology (your genetic predispositions ) versus behavior (your interactions with your environment). While researchers often try to remove environmental variables from experiments, this isn't because we think environmental interactions are unimportant. We do it because they are so important and complex that they can make it impossible to understand the basics of a system before we can try to tackle more complex issues.
Second is the portrayal of the brave epigeneticists versus the bull-headed molecular geneticists devoted to described in the book are portrayed as brave prophets standing up to implacable devotees of genetic sequence determinism. The acceptance of epigenetics may not have been as rapid as its advocates would have liked. This is in part due to resistance to new ideas. It is also due to real issues with the research and reaction to overselling of claims, such as the ability to inherit epigenetic modifications from generation to generation (can occur for certain genes, but not common). The debate, however, is not about a dichotomy between epigenetics and traditional molecular genetics, but about how much influence epigenetics has relative to other mechanisms. The correct answer is somewhere between "a lot" and "none", and will vary from gene to gene.
Having just spent some time on pedantic quibbling, I'd like to spent a few moments on pedantic praise. First, Sukel does a good job of treating purported sex differences with caution. Sex is an easy variable to look at because there are usually only two, easily defined states4 in research studies. We look sex differences more often than anything else and, therefore, we find them, whether real or not. In non-human studies, we usually use statistics to correct for sex effects as a confounding variable. In human studies, sex effects often headline the press release. Ironically, many of the sex differences we are so interested in discovering may be the result of differences in the way our culture treats the sexes and our interest in their differences.
A lot of the research presented in Dirty Minds is based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies. Interpretation of fMRI results has been controversial within the field. This has been exacerbated by simplified reporting that does not place the technology in appropriate context. Sukel, however, is very clear that fMRI measures blood flow in different regions of the brain as a proxy for neural activity - that it does not actually measure neural activity. She also makes clear that, while the resolution of fMRI is impressive compared to previous techniques, it is still poor compared to the scale at which the brain actually operates. By not being afraid to discuss the limitations on the research she describes, Sukel brings home her point that the study of the neurobiology of love is a developing science that may never solve our dirty minds.
Reading Dirty Minds won't give you that comfy feeling that you now know how your mind works. Rather than being a pessimistic message, this is a hopeful one that, if the machinations of your mind and your "heart" leave you confused, exhausted, anxious, and unsure of who you are, then you are the one with a solid grip on reality. Those moments when people act like they have it all figured out? Probably just the hormones taking over.
on March 27, 2012
Dirty Minds by Kayt Sukel is less about what you have heard from the buzz and more about external stimulus, chemicals, brain parts (oh, okay, regions) and the sometimes weird interactions that exist between them. And don't think that you will be zipping through this in an evening and expect to really understand the (copious amounts of) information you will be served. This is a book destined for a longer read as well as a second, third and fourth review.
I normally read books within a day or so, depending on whether I can put them down or not. I had to put this book down often and think about what was stated/presented just to be sure I fully understood the concepts or theories, before diving headlong into the next bit of neuroscience, cutting edge research or rediscovered old knowledge. While I am no PhD here, I am a university grad and reasonably savvy. It is just a lot of information to digest. Look at it this way, you are getting a lot of good stuff for your money.
Kayt's journey during the research for this book lead her from one university lab to another via hospital labs, MRI's and a myriad of other machines in an effort to paint this wonderful picture of how our brain reacts to the theory of love. That she became one of the subjects used to attain some of the data which she is documenting in her book, bears witness to her desire for scientific knowledge as well as her willingness to do what is necessary to get that information.
All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the workings of the mind to external and internal stimuli.
on January 7, 2013
I gave this book 5 stars without thinking twice. I enjoyed it immensely, and I learned a lot. BUT it must be said that if you read this book as being about love, you are going to be sorely disappointed, and probably not find it as funny or insightful. If you're reading it for some sort of sex thrill... you're not going to like it unless you've got a thing for rats. And if you do, you're gonna like this. Buy it, and then never go out in public again please. This is a book about neuroscience. Pure and simple. That said, it's a damn good one and you should read it.
This book is written in a style that will make you wish Sukel had written all of your science textbooks in high school (and even some of your college ones). Conversational tones applied to well-understood scientific concepts enable even a layman to work through the science-y parts without a thesaurus, a copy of Grey's, or a DSM. Further, most chapters have a fun little part where the concepts being scientifically discussed are put in motion in real-world examples. The end result is a reader who doesn't fully understand all the neuroscience, but understands the broad strokes, the implications, the questions that have been and can be answered and, more importantly, the questions that (as of now) cannot be.