Love, Voles and Mechanism

English: Young bank voles (Clethrionomys glare...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The prairie vole has attracted some attention recently because of research into love and voles. Researchers such as Larry Young have found that the prairie vole is one of the few socially monogamous mammals—that is, a mammal that pair bonds for extended periods of time (even for life). Interestingly, this pair bonding does not occur naturally in other varieties of voles—they behave like typical mammals and do not engage in this sort of pair bonding.

Larry Young was rather curious about this feature of prairie voles and researched it. He found that the brains of the voles are such that the pleasure reward of sexual activity becomes linked to a specific partner. The specific mechanism involves oxytocin and vasopressin, but the important thing is that the voles become, in effect, addicted to each other in much the same manner that a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes and associates pleasure with the trappings of smoking.  To confirm this, Young genetically modified meadow voles to be like prairie voles. The results supported the idea that the bonding is due to the chemistry: the normally non-bonding meadow voles engaged in bonding behavior.

Humans, unlike most other mammals, also engage in pair bonding (at least sometimes). While humans are different from voles, the mechanism is presumably similar. That is, we are literally addicted to love.

Young also found that prairie voles suffer from what humans would call heart ache: when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. Young tested this by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine the degree of struggle offered by the voles. He found that prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

This also presumably holds for humans as well. While it is well know that humans typically become saddened by the loss of a partner (either by death or a breakup), this research also presumably suggests that human depression of this sort has a chemical basis and that it could be “cured” by suitable treatment. This is, of course, what is often attempted with therapy and medication.

While the mechanical model of love (and the mind in general) might seem like something new, the idea of materialism (that everything is physical—as opposed to some things being non-physical in nature) is an old one that dates back to Thales. The idea that human beings are mechanical systems goes back to Descartes: he regarded the human body as a purely mechanical system, albeit one controlled by a non-material mind. Thomas Hobbes accepted Descartes view that the body is a machine, but rejected Descartes’ dualism. Influenced by the physics of his day, Hobbes held that the human being is a deterministic machine, just like all other machines and living creatures.

Perhaps the most explicit early development of the idea that humans are machines occurred in Julien de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine.  While La Mettrie is not as famous as Hobbes or Descartes, many of his views are duplicated today by modern scientists. La Mettrie held that humans and animals are essentially the same, although humans are more complex than most animals. He also held that human beings are material, deterministic, mechanist systems. That is, humans are essentially biological machines. Given these views, the idea that human love and vole love are essentially the same would be accepted by La Mettrie and would, in fact, be exactly what his theory would predict.

Interestingly enough, contemporary science is continuing the project started by philosophers like Thales, Hobbes and La Mettrie. The main difference is that contemporary scientists have much better equipment to work with and can, unlike La Mettrie and Hobbes, examine the chemical and genes that are supposed to determine human behavior. Without perhaps realizing it, scientists are apparently proving the theories of long dead philosophers.

The chemical theory of love does have some rather interesting philosophical implications and some of these will be considered in upcoming essays.


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  1. An unsettling piece for some. Indeed, we’re all prisoners of our hormones. It will be interesting to read how Mike expands on this theme of the mechanistic understanding of human life.

    Anybody interested in hearing (and seeing) more on the ‘love’ hormones might like to check out the Physiological Society’s Public Lecture for 2012. Prof Gareth Leng of Edinburgh University gave a fine review of this general topic, to which he himself has made significant contributions.

  2. From 2008:

    I’m not a fan of a lot of current philosophy, because it harps back to earlier speculative unevidenced philosophy, as if a few centuries of empirical science is insignificant to the greatness of pure human reason. And theologians passing themselves off as philosophers really does bring down the tone of the subject. But yes, you’ve got to admire those ancient thinkers, and the not so ancient, who had little else to go on. But you have to be careful what you make of their ideas.

    Take atomism, for example. It seems pretty much like a binary option: reality is ultimately indivisible, or it’s continuously divisible all the way down. So either way it seems like a fairly trivial speculation on one of two solutions that almost suggest themselves by asking the very question of what reality consists of. The atoms of the atomists are nothing like those that we find; and of course those that we find turn out to be quite different from what we first thought them to be.

    The mechanistic v nonmechanistic seems like another rather obvious dichotomy begged by asking the questions about what makes us tick.

    We see this quickness to claim modern results for ancient speculators most ridiculously in the great claims for ‘Islamic science’. Sure some advances occurred in the Islamic golden age – it wouldn’t be much of a golden age if there were none. But it’s easy to overstate. And it’s easy to overlook how wrong they were in many of the details.

    The ancients weren’t prescient in any special way, but rather individuals who were particularly good at identifying and expressing the possibilities. And if they happened to opt for what current science tells us is the case, then we heap praise on their foresight; at least until science tells us they were wrong after all.

    I don’t want to diminish what they did achieve in the way of thinking with such limited evidence and no reliable empirical methodologies to speak of. I just wanted to throw some cold water on Mike less he thinks philosophy deserves an easy pass now. 🙂

  3. s. wallerstein (aka amos)

    Ron Murphy:

    Maybe it’s the heroic element that makes someone like Hobbes so attractive in contrast to current scientists.

    After all, Hobbes affirms that we are deterministic machines back in the days when someone could be burned at the stake for that. Even if someone wasn’t executed for such beliefs in the 17th century, they were often ostracized and condemned to almost total isolation, as is the case with Spinoza, who also is a determinist about free will, etc.

    Not only were they heroic in the sense that dissidents in the Soviet Union were heroic, that is, they spoke out when it was dangerous, but also they were heroic in the sense of venturing into a paradigm which was then unexplored, a paradigm that almost no one had dared to consider before them.

    There’s something special about people like Hobbes and Spinoza, which is very admirable, even if what they say is repeated these days in every first year cognitive science course.

  4. I must admit to feeling just a little sorry for these prairie voles – bereaved of their life-partners then dumped in a bucket of water to see how much they struggle to avoid drowning. I hadn’t heard of that experiment before but the results don’t seem surprising.

    I gather this business with prairie volves, pair bonding and receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in limbic structures has been published about by Young et al since at least 2001. The ‘neuro-philosopher’ Patricia Churchland has been making written reference to it since at least 2007 (which is likely why I’d previously heard about it). By saying this I don’t in any way mean that this is somehow ‘old hat’:

    Churchland herself said in an interview in 2011 that on hearing about the prairie voles: “As a philosopher, I was stunned… I thought that monogamous pair-bonding was something one determined for oneself, with a high level of consideration and maybe some Kantian reasoning thrown in. It turns out it is mediated by biology in a very real way.”

    If you can be a top ranking and ‘very materialist’ philosopher with expertise in neuroscience and be ‘stunned’ that the explanation for human monogamous pair bonding is more directly ‘chemical’ than it is a matter of ‘high level consideration’ it seems the effect might well be more pronounced amongst the wider body of the philosophically-minded. It certainly seems well worth exploring the philosophical implications of such findings in a ‘popular’ medium (as Churchland has) and I look forward to your essays.

  5. Patricia Churchland is a bit of a mixed bag in this respect. I’m convinced that the cause of the problem is the primacy given to thought over experience:

    Of course I arrive at this by observing much empirical science, but also by sitting on my rear and thinking about stuff. So it’s hardly the empirically derived conclusion I feel it ought to be.

  6. I agree with Ron Murphy’s first commentary – spot on. One aspect of Ron’s thinking leads one to question whether philosophy can, or does, make progress. The most challenging question there could be ‘how would philosophers prove it?’ Scientists are very used to getting things wrong. The Popperian model (conjecture and refutation) inures us to the experience of long-favoured theories being turned over and abandoned, often with great speed. But philosophers seem always able to accommodate everything that went before because they seem to have no means of refutation. So how can philosophical progress be secured or demonstrated?

    I’ve long wondered why it is assumed that introspection alone can deliver genuine insights? What else can philosophers sensu stricto bring to bear? The history of the empirical method and scientific progress is littered with topics having to be wrested from the ‘hands’ of philosophers (and theologians alike). Thus discoveries about the nature of, say, light, cosmology or evolution, have each abruptly swept away millenia of ignorance. It’s hard to deny that philosophers have been as steeped in such ignorance as the rest of humankind and have promulgated it, with confidence, until indisputable facts and the associated scientific insights are brought to bear.

    Despite this clear historical trend, with respect to current projects such as advanced neuroscience revealing more and more about the thinking stuff between our ears and the stuff of thinking, we tend to have ‘reactionary’ comment from (some) philosophers. ‘Scientism’ is assumed to be a damning label. It is argued that, for example, our (now acknowledged to be) evolved brain is intrinsically not capable of understanding itself; thus, it is argued, brain science is ‘doomed to fail’ in its quest. Yet that confidence is only derived from introspection, even though it is daily chipped away by scientific research. Science consistently and reliably shows us that we can extend our comprehension of reality through its methods. Our very thinking is changed, and demonstrably advanced, by the rational acquisition and application of scientifically derived true knowledge. It does seem that introspection has always had severe limits unless true knowledge can be added to give it renewed traction.

    So, as Mike’s article reveals, it could well turn out that ‘love’ is rather more mundane in its origins if oxytocin/vasopressin (and the many necessary additional materialistic details) turn out to acccount for it all. The phenomenon for those who experience it will not be diminished. That said, my critique of the powers of pure introspection is succinctly summarised in Ron’s neat and challenging phrase ‘the primacy given to thought over experience’. I join with Ron’s smiley face emoticon; we’ll be interested to read where Mike goes next, despite this “cold water”.

  7. Hi Ron,

    I was, as I think I implied, a little surprised that Churchland said she was ‘stunned’ by scientific findings regarding voles and oxytocin. I’d have thought she would have assumed that some mechanism like that would explain human pair-bonding rather than thinking it was “something one determined for oneself, with a high level of consideration and maybe some Kantian reasoning thrown in”. If anything is explicable in those terms, monogamous pair bonding in humans just doesn’t seem like the type of thing that’s a candidate for that type of explanation to me.

    That being said, I can imagine somebody making a conscious decision to be monogamous (or as some might prefer to say being under the illusion that they had), ‘feeling’ that was how it worked and then having their intuitions on a subject they hadn’t given too much thought to run up against something hard when they first learn about monogamy amongst geese and voles. I don’t think that speaks about primacy of reason over experience – that just seems like having an untutored intuition based on experience that was revised when one learnt and thought about something new from science.

  8. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    I assume that Churchland’s comment about “Kantian reasoning” is ironic. I suspect that she’s laughing at herself (and at all of us) a bit, since most of us, whatever our scientific stance, tend to idealize our own intimate relationships, in this case, Patricia Churchland’s long-term, apparently successful marriage. However, given her philosophical trajectory, I doubt that she’s ever been much impressed by Kantianism.

  9. Hence the use of the word “archly”.

    Yes Amos, you’re very obviously entirely right.

    I can be somewhat dim at times.

  10. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    Irony is very hard to communicate out of context. Using irony a lot, I know that all too well.

    That’s why people put the little “smiles” at the end of their ironic comments.

  11. Well the interviewer noticed the ‘archly’ bit.

    I really don’t how I was blind to the word or why I wouldn’t have seen the irony regardless.

    I should like to think its unusual dip in cognitive function due to fatigue, but maybe I really am this dim all the time and you’ve just been too polite to tell me?

  12. s. wallerstein (aka amos)


    All of us tend to notice what we’re looking for and thus, often to miss crucial details.

    Irony is based on shared codes. If we’re standing in front of what I consider to be an ugly statue of a national hero in the plaza with a body language reminiscent of Benito Mussolini and I remark “how lovely”, unless you know me and you share certain codes with me about national heroes, statues in the plaza and fascist body language, you are likely to take me seriously.

    Maybe I have more sense of Patricia Churchland as a human being than you do, which does not mean that I understand her philosophy more than you do. That’s all.

    I confess that I enjoy listening to Patricia Churchland, independent of her message, that I like her voice and find her attractive as a person and as a woman.

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