BRAIN ON INTIMACY:
ANDREA KUSZEWSKI GIVES US
By Hope Katz Gibbs,
Illustrations by Michael Gibbs
Research scientist Andrea Kuszewski (pictured here) is a behavior therapist and consultant who treats children and families with autism spectrum disorders, specializing in Asperger’s syndrome. Her writing is regularly featured in Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Qualcomm Spark, and WIRED UK, among other national and international publications.
What makes her work universally popular is that Kuszewski is an expert on a topic that we hold near and dear to our hearts: She studies what makes us feel loved and desirable, and why we’re attracted to some people and not others. And she shows us what we can do to make our love and work lives richer, fuller, and more satisfying.
I can’t think of a better cover story for our Love Issue: February 2015. Scroll down for my Q&A with Andrea Kuszewski. And click here to listen to our podcast interview.
THE SECRETS BEHIND THE SCIENCE OF SEX
Be Inkandescent: Let’s get down to the heart of this topic. What’s the science of sex?
Andrea Kuszewski: It starts with the neuroscience of what is going on in the brain, and how that relates to behavior. One of the biggest myths out there about neuroscience surrounds dopamine and oxytocin.
Dopamine is considered the pleasure molecule, and more specifically it’s a pleasure neurotransmitter. What we have found out in recent years is that it is actually more related to the pleasure of anticipation rather than just pleasure. It’s not that you experience something and it gives you a hit of dopamine; it’s that you know something you like might be coming.
Be Inkandescent: So the anticipation triggers dopamine in different ways. What about oxytocin?
Andrea Kuszewski: Oxytocin, which some people call “the cuddle hormone,” turns out to not be just about bonding. It is the release after an orgasm when you get this hit of oxytocin. And what it does is help form attachments, or strengthens attachments and bonds that are already there.
Be Inkandescent: Can it also have a negative effect on our relationships?
Andrea Kuszewski: It can! There is actually a big myth about oxytocin that I want to clear up. Researchers have found that oxytocin also strengthens stereotype behaviors.
So if you are prejudiced against some group and you get a sudden spray of oxytocin, you are not going to start liking that group. In fact, you are more than likely going to want to be even more distant and separate from them.
Be Inkandescent: The research you do not only impacts a person’s love life — it shows that neuroscience is relevant to all of our relationships, including the bonds we develop with employees, colleagues, customers, and vendors.
Andrea Kuszewski: This really is a fascinating topic, and it’s also the reason why relationships are hard. In fact, even though the science behind sexual attraction and pleasure is so new, we already know that it’s difficult to always be doing the right thing at the right time to get the outcome we want — in our professional and personal lives.
For instance, when we are stressed-out, and we are looking for some sense of peace, our brains seek out symmetry. It is very calming to our brains, because symmetry puts us at ease, pulls us together, and puts us in that nice grounded state.
Be Inkandescent: When you talk about symmetry, what do you mean? For instance, does it describe someone who has symmetrical facial features, and objects that have symmetrical shapes?
Andrea Kuszewski: Yes, that’s right. Specifically, studies show that symmetrical faces are pretty rare. The average person has an asymmetrical face, but some people come really close, like actor Denzel Washington (pictured here). You look at him and can’t help but think, “Yeah, he is an attractive man.” So if you want to relax, pop a picture of Denzel up on your laptop or Smartphone.
But if you are looking to get excited, take a look at actor Joaquin Phoenix (shown below). He has that scar above his lip, and he has got that one eye that is a little more open than the other one. And he is one hot guy!
The research explains why, since it suggests that asymmetry is actually more attractive because it offers a little bit of something different. And, it triggers dopamine.
So the key here is novelty, mystery, things that don’t quite fit. When there is that little bit left hanging, it makes you wonder a little bit, and you get a hit of dopamine. It is the anticipation of pleasure that triggers that reward system.
Be Inkandescent: Is that why some people are attracted to the “nice guy” or “girl next door” versus the “bad boy” or woman with an edge?
Andrea Kuszewski: Yes. The nice person is calming, predictable, and offers nothing out of the ordinary, which is good for some people. But then you have the bad boy and maybe he is kind of a jerk, but you never know what he is going to do — which can be exciting.
You don’t know why you are drawn to this person, but you can’t seem to walk away. The good news is that there are ways to get the novelty without having to go through chaos and negativity.
Be Inkandescent: You just have to be aware of it, and realize that it’s your brain chemistry at work. And we can take comfort in the fact that we are not perfect, but that might actually work for us in the romance field.
Andrea Kuszewski: Yeah! The key is knowing yourself and your own preferences, and then finding someone who brings that to the table. Not everyone likes novelty, of course. Some people really like peace, calm, and predictability.
But even those people like a little novelty. And then there are people way on the other end of the spectrum, who by nature are thrillseekers. They are usually more attracted to risk takers or the kind of people who you never know what they are going to do. Everyone is unique.
Be Inkandescent: How does this play out in the workplace?
To find out, click here to read more in our February 2015 Tips for Entrepreneurs.