Mark Olson’s “A Neuroscience Perspective on Thriving Relationships”
Fisher’s research might suggest that a minimum requirement for a thriving relationship would be that all three drives of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment are present. On the surface, that scenario sounds rather perfect to most people. But as has been discussed already, one can have all of those drives operating at full tilt and be woefully incompatible with the other person. Drives are just neurobiological states that engaged for reasons often completely unrelated to compatibility. Fredrickson’s research hints that a far better indicator of compatibility is the frequency of MMPR. (MMPR stands for Micro-Moments of Positivity Resonance) Positivity resonance doesn’t ensure compatibility, but it’s a prerequisite for compatibility since it’s the body’s way of indicating how well two people are relating to one another. To the extent that romantic attraction is blind to compatibility, positivity resonance has its eyes wide open.
Now that we have discussed the neurobiological aspects of love, we can incorporate that knowledge within a design perspective on compatibility. To begin with a simple example, let’s consider compatibility for a tree. It has specific inputs (needs) that we can identify (e.g. water, sunlight, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.), and it generates outputs in the form of materials (leaves, fruit, wood, etc.) and functions (windbreak, shade, shelter, etc.). If we look at a forest, there are, of course, many different plants and animals with a variety of input/output profiles. Providing the necessary inputs for just one of those plant or animal individuals is easy, but if we consider the design that is necessary to sustain a forest of such interdependent individuals, the problem becomes considerably more complex as most of the outputs from each individual need to be utilized as inputs, or resources, for other individuals.
Designing an entire biological ecosystem would be an incredibly complex endeavor, but it’s nowhere near the complexity of designing relationships, or social ecosystems. Plants have a short list of identifiable needs with knowable proportions. Animals, with their ability to locomote, create numerous subgoals to meet their needs. And social animals such as humans add on a whole set of abstract needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy) that are difficult to identify and impossible to allocate proportions for. In many ways, an entire ecosystem exists in the relationship between just two humans.
The ecosystemic view of relationships will be discussed more momentarily, but first some of these social needs deserve to be mentioned. The first is a desire to experience shared positive emotions and connection, which is exactly what positivity resonance is all about. It’s what the Beatles are talking about when they sing all we need is love. For many in modern post-agricultural society, this need for connection is rarely or never fulfilled, and many don’t know what fulfillment feels like until they find themselves in a situation (e.g. a week long workshop with strangers) where it becomes fulfilled.
The second is a desire for meaning, which is best attained by giving to something greater than ourselves. Research (Baumeister, et al., 2013) has shown that people who get their needs met are happy, but those who GIVE to something bigger than themselves experience meaning, which is distinct from happiness.
Stating the above two needs probably doesn’t seem like anything new. But let’s take a design perspective on this so we can appreciate how awesome it is that we DO have those needs. Start by simply imagining a species whose individuals are driven to experience positive emotions. Those individuals will act in a certain set of ways— maybe soaking in hot tubs, eating mangos, and seeking opportunities to be touched. This may sound human, but wait…
Now consider a species whose individuals are motivated to create SHARED positive emotions and who experience pleasure not only by being touched but by touching— they will engage in behaviors (perhaps leading others to hot tubs, feeding mangos to them, and massaging them) that assist others in experiencing positive emotions, and the more they do it, the more the positivity within the group spirals up. These additional components alone will create a sexual species where individuals seek out opportunities to create positive experiences in themselves and others through pleasant physical contact. This is a pretty happy and sexual group, but they aren’t going to be driven to do anything that doesn’t directly affect them.
So now imagine that this species is given the additional drive to experience pleasure by giving to others or to projects that are bigger than themselves, for which they may not receive any direct pleasure or reward. Now you have a species that is wired not only to be sexual but also to make the world a better place. Now you have the potential for an eco-sexual species.