Everything I needed to know about the Petraeus/Broadwell/Allen/Kelley/Shirtless FBI Agent circle I learned when reading Dr. Louann Brizendine’s book series on on the science of male and female brains and the impact hormone cycles have on our behaviors and perceptions.
In her book series (titled The Female Brain, 2006, and The Male Brain, 2010) the Berkley, Yale and Harvard-educated neuropsychologist describes how predictable human behavior and attraction can be when looking through a psychoneuroendocrinological lens. According to Brizendine, at every stage of our lives, our behaviors and the makeup of our brain are being molded by pre-determined hormone patterns. Fetus’s brains begin to morph when an in utero hormone surge ‘marinates’ their brains, and it only gets more interesting after birth wherein an ever-changing cocktail of hormones puppeteers us and massively alters the magnitude of our verbal growth, emotional volatility and sexual aggression and even drives physical brain mass changes.
So with every sensational story about Generals Petraeus and Allen, I’m shocked less by their behaviors and more that anyone is surprised. It’s hardly news when science has predicted this all along. For example…
Women Do Cheat
In her first book, The Female Brain, Brizendine speaks to an unpopular reality—women cheat too. It is not only the men that seek out secondary partners. There is even some scientific evidence that at ovulation women show a preference for seeking out a new mate vs. remaining with their safe partners. Dr. Brizendine describes a proposed model to explain this: women seek a ‘safe’ partner who will remain with her children and provide for them, ensuring they will survive and their genes will carry forward. But the man who is willing to be loyal is not always the man with the most robust genes. This theory makes the case that a woman’s offspring would benefit most, genetically, if she gathers sperm from the best available man or men in her current social circle and brings the resulting offspring home to an environment in which they will thrive and be provided for until adulthood. The man with the best genes may not be the man who is willing to stick around and keep the kids alive. Does some of this sound too real to be just science? Brizendine’s research references a study wherein a set of fathers were gathered, each of whom understood himself to be the true paternal parent of his child. When their children’s DNA was tested, 10% of the study subjects were not matches to their known fathers. The wives had sought someone else’s genes to make that child.
Oxytocin, love potion with the addictive strength of meth
There are more examples in Dr. Brizendine’s writings that ring true and that scientifically explain the seemingly sensational behaviors described in the Petraeus/Broadwell/Allen/Kelley/Shirtless Guy saga. While many hormones are in play as we navigate our days, including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, dopamine, vasopressin and more, oxytocin seems to take the stage in the Petraeus story.
When courting another individual, anything from extended eye contact, to suggestive words (sent by Gmail, perhaps), can cause a surge of oxytocin, a hormone that gives us an addictive high of relaxation and euphoria and turns down the volume on the brain’s caution and critical thinking channels. The theory behind this is that once a mate is found, the brain must turn off the normal survival defences—critical thinking and cautious behavior—in order to allow one’s self to move into the very vulnerable position of having sex, which is not a logical or safe survival or defense position. (Evidenced by the lack of overlap between Tae Kwon Do and Kama Sutra positions). So if we are sending thousands of courting-based e-mails per day, we are probably in an oxytocin feeding frenzy, and our critical thinking and cautious decision making is compromised if not turned off altogether.
The gift of oxytocin that a couple (or ménage-a-trois, ou, meme, cinq) grants each other is the beginning of pair-bonding, and the point at which first wife’s attorney should start preparing papers, because it’s only going to get worse. The oxytocin, which our bodies often serve with a side of dopamine, drives us to seek more and more of the same pleasure. So it takes more verbal suggestions, more flirtations behaviors, and ultimately, consummate the ultimate pair-bonding behavior.
Petraeus, Broadwell, Allen, Kelley, and perhaps the Shirtless Guy, were strung out on oxytocin, getting what they could, but always focused on accessing more.
Says Brizendine about the effects of oxytocin, “Once a person is in love, the cautious, critical-thinking pathways in the brain shut down” and “it produces a tendency to trust the (other)” and “it increases the likelihood that you will believe everything and anything he tells you.” Scientists have injected oxytocin in test subjects, resulting in subjects pair-bonding with individuals they did not love or know, and, in another test, in individuals being 50% more likely to buy-in to an investment pitch.
So it is here that it does become a matter of national security risk. We see that men who have access to critical national security information and who know more than most about mitigating risks and managing secure communications seem to throw caution to the wind just to get another drip dose of that oxytocin. What else might they have thrown to the wind to get their fix? Cleopatra was on to something. Thank goodness these women weren’t spies…
Persons most at risk to make bad decisions
If being in the height of a courtship mutes the lovers’ critical thinking skills, who in this story is most at risk to make bad decisions for our country? The intersection of:
- The people with the most decision-making power: in this case, the men, Petraeus and Allen.
- The people who seek out sexual courtships more regularly: per science, Petraeus and Allen (and likely the Shirtless Guy). Why?
Science tells us that in the man’s brain the area for sexual pursuit “is about two times larger than parallel structures in the female brain,” according to Brizendine. And men think about sex more than women overall. Says Brizendine: “Men have (the equivalent of) O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex.”
Men don’t consciously develop this sex-centric mindset. The male brain begins to be structured this way when he is in his mother’s womb, at only eight weeks post-conception. So skip the psychologist fees on this one; this is one issue that we can definitely blame on our parents.
Much is explained when you contrast the male’s disposition with the disposition of his wife, now a mother, a woman who has been wooed, who became the first wife, and who then became pregnant with a child and gave birth. Her hormones change her. A child would not survive if, after its birth, the mother remained infatuated with, addicted to, and only concerned about her husband. Instead, a mother becomes addicted to her child, becoming massively attuned to its scents, its sounds, and all of its indicators of well-being. She becomes, for a while, obsessed with a new love, the love of seeing her genes live beyond her lifetime, through her child.
But the father remains on his constant hunt for more oxytocin and thinks about it all day every day. If you could re-read any of the generals’ recent speeches, you could probably add “and I really need my oxytocin fix” after ever comma and you get a better view of his actual thoughts. Again, he was wired before he was born.
How do they measure up?
Share your comments to this article below. Especially if you know how tall Petraeus and Allen are. Here’s why.
Evolutionary psychologist David Buss, states Brizendine, did research on thirty-seven cultures around the world, including the US, documenting mate preferences of over ten thousand individuals. His research concluded there was not a great range, and few outliers, in the patterns of male and female partner preferences.
Women select men more on social status and materials resources than on their looks, and women seek men who are at least four inches taller and three and a half years older, regardless of where they are in the world. Men seek women between ages twenty and forty (or who have features that appear youth-like), who are two and a half years younger, and who have attractive physical features that include symmetry, clear skin, luscious lips, and curvy hips, per science. She need not have a Harvard degree or be a Tampa socialite, though those features are evidently a plus.
Dr. Brizendine states that these preferences have been hard-wired in our brains since the Stone Age. So part of the problem is our denial of these facts. Sending someone far away from home without any access to a source of love and love’s biochemical rewards is likely to result in him or her tapping into a local keg of oxytocin. Yes, one must have strength and character to avoid these missteps, but we need to admit how strong the demand for oxytocin is.
If we recognize the challenges of non-monogamous hard-wiring, pointing a righteous and puritan finger won’t deliver an implementable solution. But there are a few things a general, a biographer, a socialite, and a Shirtless Guy can do:
- Don’t break a contract with a spouse. Play this one aboveboard and offer a divorce, construct a new marriage agreement, or don’t get married in the first place.
- Define how you seek to manage your sexual cravings and establish the right constructs. Either open the doors wide for dating, or if you seek to commit to someone, assign peers who will take on the role of ‘bouncer’ to keep you on the straight and narrow. And set a few rules for yourself, like always keeping an added party in the room, and keep pictures of your spouse and kids in view around you. You’d never serve methamphetamines on a silver platter in front of a meth addict, right?
- Pick a Gmail password that is less hacker/stalker friendly than “iHeartPaula.”