The Carrington Award: Dr Anna Machin ‘How Love Makes Us Human’
1 December 2020 - All
On Friday 20 November, we welcomed evolutionary anthropologist, Dr Anna Machin, to give a virtual talk to our Sixth Form as part of The Carrington Award.
Dr Machin is world-renowned for her pioneering work exploring science and anthropology of fatherhood, but also for her interpretation of human love, which the girls were excited to hear about in this talk. Her 16-part YouTube series ‘How Love Makes Us Human’, documents what science has to say about love and where love might take us in the future.
Sara (LVI) shared her thoughts about this interesting topic below.
From modern cheesy romantic comedies to Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Lovers of Valdaro, a pair of human skeletons roughly 6000 years old found in a tomb in Mantua, Italy, the idea of love is one of the most recurring and enduring subjects associated with human beings throughout the ages. In fact, according to the cross-cultural study of Jankowiak and Fischer (1992), the concept of romantic love exists in 147 out of the 166 sampled cultures from around the world. Yet, despite its constant presence in our lives, very little is actually known about the processes and mechanisms underpinning this complex phenomenon involving a rapid swing of emotions, physical arousal and sexual attraction, self-disclosure and a deep interest in another person.
The evolutionary anthropologist, writer and professor at the University of Oxford Anna Machin, thus set out on a journey to investigate the science behind close human relationships; may it be those between lovers, friends or parents and children as these are all merely different types of this single mysterious emotion. In a gripping one-hour talk, Dr Machin outlined how evolution has created what we call love using various hormones, genes and neurotransmitters, consequently producing an intricate cocktail of neurochemicals that motivates us to seek love, influences the types of partners we choose and partially shapes our behaviour in a relationship.
Crucial at the start of a relationship, oxytocin is the first of the ingredients as it works to lower our inhibitions to meet new people through the inhibition of the amygdala, a fear centre in the brain. Along with dopamine, these two chemicals increase the plasticity of the brain, making it more open to change and hence easier for us to learn and remember as much as we can about those we are interested in. Unfortunately, they are both only short-term neurochemicals and so evolution was challenged to find a glue that would help maintain long-term affection for years – this binder comes in the form of serotonin and beta-endorphins that make us just a tad obsessed with the other person and make us feel euphoric whenever we spend time with them, creating, more or less, an addiction. This, along with the presence or absence of several genes such as the oxytocin receptor gene or serotonin transporter gene, may affect how good we are at empathy, how satisfied we are in a relationship or how likely we are to even start one in the first place.
Nevertheless, as Dr Machin herself admitted, neurochemistry doesn’t have all the solutions and the genes are not deterministic as they all interact with the environment surrounding us. The effects may therefore be altered by our personal experiences and there are many mysteries still waiting to be solved.
Dr Machin left us with the following dilemma: Do we actually want to find the real secret to love? Or would a purely scientific explanation strip it of its beauty and unpredictability, and the uncertainty and awkwardness so typical of new relationships? After all, isn’t that what makes us human?
The Carrington Award was developed at Wycombe Abbey to help girls achieve not only academic excellence, but to also prepare pupils for the broader challenges of life and work beyond school. The School’s founder, Dame Frances Dove, had the vision that education was more than classroom teaching – that Wycombe Abbey should equip girls to take leading roles in professional life. The Carrington Award Programme aims to give pupils a range of skills and knowledge needed to survive and thrive in the real world. Drawing from the latest theories and research, alongside the contributions of university academics and business leaders, the programme ensures the development of skills required to excel at university and in future careers. To hear from speakers such as Dr Machin, the girls are able to delve deeper into a topic and learn a little more.