Limerence (the urge to merge)

July 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

More than 30 years ago, the term limerance was coined by psychologists to describe the state of our minds when we experience falling in love.  That place we get into where everything and anything about the other person makes us feel that they are perfect for us. The universe feels unified. All is good.  Really good. Even their quirky habits are lovable, like how he jingles the change in his pocket, or how she twirls her hair.  Being around the other, even thinking about them, has us squirting Dopamine into our system and makes us feel just great.

More recently, Cambridge University neuroscientist, Wolfram Schultze did research on monkeys.  As NY Times columnist David Brooks reports in his new book: The Social Animal, when Schultze squirted apple juice into the monkeys’ mouths, he observed a surge in dopamine neurons firing off.  Like Pavlov, he set up an experiment that had a tone go off just before the juice arrived. As you would expect, it took little time for the monkeys to learn what was going on and  Schultz observed the dopamine neurons firing at the sound of the tone.  What happened next is most curious…..Schultze observed that the neurons quickly began RESPONDING TO THE TONE, AND NOT THE DELIVERY OF THE JUICE. Why weren’t the neurons responding to the reward of the juice as we would expect?

The answer to this question comes from research done by Montague, Dayan and Sejnowski that found that our minds are actually geared more towards predicting rewards (predictive modeling) than the rewards themselves.  All day long, we are thinking that “this will lead to that, that to this,…”  If I smile at her, she’ll smile at me, If I put my hand here, this will happen.  It’s the gift and beauty of homo sapiens’ large neo-cortex –  to have a great capacity to do that.  When one of our models accurately anticipates reality, the mind gets that little surge of dopamine and we get a reassuring feeling – along the lines of being in love.  The universe has confirmed my belief – I feel unified.  When one of our models contradicts reality, then we experience tension, dissonance and concern. Montague argues that the main business of the brain is modeling.  When our model meshes with what actually happened we get the sweet squirt.  When it doesn’t, we’re not happy & the brain has to learn what the glitch is and adjust the model, or adjust the situation to fit our model – like when we feel we have to argue the other person to death in order to feel right.

Brooks sites some examples from research of how our desire for limerance manifests itself  in major life decisions:

  1. People who are named Dennis & Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists.
  2. People named Louis are disproportionately likely to move to Saint Louis.

As Montague observes, our brains are continually creating little anticipatory patterns.  Are any of you FOX News fans?  Daily Show fans? I’m betting you feel great when your favorite pundit reinforces your inner models.  Same is true in the sports arena where we continue to look for or create patterns and get them confirmed.  For example, most people believe basketball players go through hot and cold streaks (us detecting a pattern to predict the future). But substantial research has found no evidence of hot and cold streakiness in the NBA.  A shooter who has made two shots in a row, is as likely to miss his third shot as his career shooting percentage would predict. In baseball – when there’s a close tag at home plate, and all subjects are looking at the same replay, research shows that most fans of the runner’s team will say he is safe, most fans of the catcher’s team will call him out.

This is the basis of bias, stereotypes and the like.  The brain is just trying to make our life easier – and more pleasurable.    For us in leadership and management positions – take note:  Check your assumptions of a direct report’s ability to improve (or not) in a task.  You may be managing them in a way to confirm your belief, not what reality is. Also – check your bias towards or against an interviewee who went to the same school as you (or didn’t); and especially, pay attention to how you talk to yourself about yourself (“I’ll never be a numbers person,” “I won’t be able to handle it if she gets emotional; he screams”).  You want to avoid fulfilling these prophesies – even if it means missing out on the dopamine squirt.   Don’t let the asset of your neo-cortex turn into a liability.

Just pay attention.

Good luck.

close call baseball


§ 4 Responses to Limerence (the urge to merge)

  • Bob Faw says:

    As always–cogent, useful and well written.
    Thanks, Allen!
    I work to pay attention to my biases. It’s hard! That’s part of why I keep bringing my focus back to the meta-goal for this situation. E.g., I want the best possible solution; so I’ll listen to the opposing views from the guy I feel threatened by… even if my urge is to shut him down or ignore him.

  • Gil says:

    I wonder what the impact of optimism or pessimism has on all of this and the way in which we self talk?

    • Hi Gil, thanks for the comment. From what I’ve read, learned and experienced, self-talk, beliefs, explanatory styles – whatever we want to call them – have an Irrefutable impact. Neroscience is showing us that our rationality lies atop our emotional experience (and inclinations of how we view the world) and often seeks ways to justify how we feel about things. That’s why the Red Sox will always get to home plate before the tag.

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