Contradictheory: Love in K-pop songs and your brain


  • Living
  • Monday, 18 Feb 2019

The big boss at the newspaper asked us to write about love this week, in line with the theme of Valentine. I know when I’m beat, so I Googled “What is love” to find that plenty of people seem to have answers, including researchers at Stanford University, and folks at a dating website.

But perhaps the most interesting answer came from K-Pop all-girl group Twice, if only because it was all questions. Their song What is Love? posted the following philosophical quandary: (translated from Korean) “How could it be as sweet as candy? How is it like flying in the sky? I wanna know know know know.... What is love?”

For those of you who only gave it a cursory glance, it might seem that these Korean teeny boppers have romanticised what love is. Oh, to be young and naive!

But in fact they have wisdom beyond their years (or at least the songwriter does). If you read the lyrics carefully, you’ll realise that they are trying to say that love is addictive (like candy) and gives you a high (in the sky). And research has shown that when you are in love, it activates the same reward centres of your brain as cocaine.

Studies examining people who are in love reveal plenty of activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a small area at the base of the brain. It’s part of the brain’s reward system, and creates motivation and excitement, and can result in the production of dopamine – that stuff that makes you feel so, so good.

You feel so sure about everything you do. There is a phenomenon of “positive illusions” where you casually ignore the negative aspects of the person you are in love with and just focus on the positive. This is not a bad thing in itself. The feeling of appreciation helps relationships grow stronger. So the answer to the question “What is Love?” could be, “it’s like drugs, although more legal, but still fun”. For those who have had their love found or affirmed recently during Valentine’s Day, good for you.

Except I should also mention that the weeks around Valentine’s are ones that see a lot of breakups. And with it, comes the pain. The pain of rejection, the pain of being cast aside, that horrible feeling of not being good enough. Unless you’re one of that blessed five % of the population who has never been rejected.

In this case, love is that terrible thing to endure. When you’ve been rejected, your human brain weighs up the costs and benefits, and thinks, hey it’s time to move on.

OK, here’s the terrible truth. First, when you’re in love, it begins to deactivate the neural regions in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain near the front that controls decision-making. So all those very stupid things you do when you’re in love? This is why.

Secondly, even though you’ve been dumped, your VTA is still being activated. You are still very much in love, and there seems to be very little you can do about it. Other parts of the brain also being stimulated have to do with feelings of attachment, physical pain, anxiety, and distress associated with physical pain. I think the fact that this correlates strongly with what addicts feel during withdrawal is just part of the cosmic joke.

Another part that is activated is something called the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which have to do with when you are deciding the pros and cons of a decision you are trying to make. This is why you spend long periods of time thinking about what you could have said or done better. And you get a little tetchy and antisocial in the process. Having friends tell you it is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all makes you want to shove Tennyson’s Complete Works up their nether regions.

How do you fall out of love with somebody? It seems you can’t. It’s not a decision to make, it’s just a point of experience that you need to pivot around and slingshot off to your next destination in life.

A lot of what I’ve written here has been based on the work of Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who has done a tremendous amount of research in this field. Yet she herself admits that even though she understands a lot of how love works, she still cannot control how she feels when in it.

I agree. Even if I knew then what I know now, I would probably have been powerless to do anything about my various misadventures. I know this is true because still, occasionally, I’ll hear a name or watch a movie, and then I’m suddenly back again in the trenches. Any control is just your brain fooling itself.

Fortunately, for the most part, those mad passages in your life will boil away, replaced by a more gentle ebb and flow of more stable, less crazy relationships. I don’t really fret about love anymore. Except perhaps when I hear K-Pop songs extolling love and it’s virtues.

Man, you don’t even know the half of it.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.


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