Can we choose to fall out of love? | Dessa


Hello, my name is Dessa, and I’m a member of a hip-hop
collective called Doomtree. I’m the one in the tank top. (Laughter) And I make my living as a performing,
touring rapper and singer. When we perform as a collective,
this is what our shows look like. I’m the one in the boots. There’s a lot of jumping.
There’s a lot of sweating. It’s loud. It’s very high-energy. Sometimes there are
unintentional body checks onstage. Sometimes there are completely
intentional body checks onstage. It’s kind of a hybrid between
an intramural hockey game and a concert. However, when I perform
my own music as a solo artist, I tend to gravitate towards
more melancholy sounds. A few years ago, I gave my mom
the rough mixes of a new album, and she said, “Baby, it’s beautiful,
but why is it always so sad?” (Laughter) “You always make music to bleed out to.” And I thought, “Who are you hanging
out with that you know that phrase?” (Laughter) But over the course of my career,
I’ve written so many sad love songs that I got messages like this from fans: “Release new music or a book.
I need help with my breakup.” (Laughter) And after performing and recording
and touring those songs for a long time, I found myself in a position in which my professional niche
was essentially romantic devastation. What I hadn’t been public about, however, was the fact that most of these songs
had been written about the same guy. And for two years, we tried
to sort ourselves out, and then for five and on and off for 10. And I was not only heartbroken, but I was kind of embarrassed
that I couldn’t rebound from what other people seemed
to recover from so regularly. And even though I knew
it wasn’t doing either of us any good, I just couldn’t figure out
how to put the love down. Then, drinking white wine one night, I saw a TED Talk by a woman
named Dr. Helen Fisher, and she said that in her work, she’d
been able to map the coordinates of love in the human brain. And I thought, well,
if I could find my love in my brain, maybe I could get it out. So I went to Twitter. “Anybody got access to an fMRI lab, like at midnight or something? I’ll trade for backstage
passes and whiskey.” (Laughter) And that’s Dr. Cheryl Olman, who works at the University of Minnesota’s
Center for Magnetic Resonance Research. She took me up on it. I explained Dr. Fisher’s protocol, and we decided to recreate it
with a sample size of one, me. (Laughter) So I got decked out in a pair
of forest green scrubs, and I was laid on a gurney and wheeled into an fMRI machine. If you’re unfamiliar with that technology, essentially, an fMRI machine
is a big, tubular magnet that tracks the progress
of deoxygenated iron in your blood. So it’s essentially figuring out
what parts of your brain are making the biggest metabolic demand
at any given moment. And in that way, it can figure out which structures
are associated with a task, like tapping your finger, for example,
will always light up the same region, or in my case, looking at pictures of your ex-boyfriend and then looking at pictures of a dude
who just sort of resembled my ex-boyfriend but for whom I had no strong feelings. He was the control. (Laughter) And when I left the machine, we had these really
high-resolution images of my brain. We could cleave the two halves apart. We could inflate the cortex to see
inside all of the wrinkles, essentially, in a view that Dr. Cheryl Olman
called the “brain skin rug.” (Laughter) And we could see how my brain had behaved
when I looked at images of both men. And this was important. We could track all of the activity when I looked at the control
and when I looked at my ex, and it was in comparing these data sets
that we’d be able to find the love alone, in the same way that, if I were
to step on a scale fully dressed and then step on it again naked, the difference between those numbers
would be the weight of my clothing. So when we did that data comparison,
we subtracted one from the other, we found activity in exactly the regions
that Dr. Fisher would have predicted. That’s me. And that’s my brain in love. There was activity in that little
orange dot, the ventral tegmental area, that kind of loop of red
is the anterior cingulate and that golden set of horns
is the caudates. After she had had time to analyze
the data with her team and a couple of partners, Andrea and Phil, Cheryl sent me an image, a single slide. It was my brain in cross section, with one bright dot of activity that represented
my feelings for this dude. And I’d known I was in love, and that’s the whole reason
I was going to these outrageous lengths. But having an image that proved it
felt like such a vindication, like, “Yeah, it’s all in my head,
but now I know exactly where.” (Laughter) And I also felt like an assassin
who had her mark. That was what I had to annihilate. So I decided to embark
on a course of treatment called “neurofeedback.” I worked with a woman named
Penijean Gracefire, and she explained that what we’d be doing
was training my brain. We’re not lobotomizing anything. We’re training it in the way
that we would train a muscle, so that it would be flexible enough
and resilient enough to respond appropriately
to my circumstances. So when we’re on the treadmill,
we would anticipate that our heart would beat and pound, and when we’re asleep,
we would ask that that muscle slow. Similarly, when I’m in a long-term,
viable, loving romantic relationship, the emotional centers
of my brain should engage, and when I’m not in a long-term,
viable, emotional, loving relationship, they should eventually chill out. So she came over with a set of electrodes
just smaller than a dime that were sensitive enough
to detect my brainwaves through my bone and hair and scalp. And when she rigged me up,
I could see my brain working in real time. And in another view that she showed me, I could see exactly which parts
of my brain were hyperactive, here displayed in red; hypoactive, here displayed in blue; and the healthy threshold of behavior, the green zone, the Goldilocks zone, which is where I wanted to go. And we can, in fact, isolate
just those parts of my brain that were associated
with the romantic regulation that we’d identified in the Fisher study. So Penijean, several times, hooked me up with all her electrodes, and she explained that I didn’t
have to do or think anything. I just essentially
had to hold pretty still and stay awake and watch. (Harp and vibraphone sounds play) So I did. And every time my brain operated
in that healthy threshold, I got a little run of harp
or vibraphone music. And I just watched my brain rotate
at roughly the speed of a gyro machine on my dad’s flat-screen TV. And that was counterintuitive. She said the learning would be
essentially unconscious. But then I thought about
the other things I had learned without actively engaging
my conscious mind. When you ride a bike, I don’t really know what, like,
my left calf muscle is doing, or how my latissimus dorsi knows
to engage when I wobble to the right. The body just learns. And similarly, Pavlov’s dogs probably
don’t know a lot about, like, protein structures
or the waveform of a ringing bell, but they salivate nonetheless
because the body paired the stimuli. Finished the sessions, went back to Dr. Cheryl
Olman’s fMRI machine, and we repeated the protocol, the same images — of the ex, of the control and,
in the interest of scientific rigor, Cheryl and her team
didn’t know who was who, so that they couldn’t
influence the results. And after she had time
to analyze that second set of data, she sent me that image. She said, “Dude A’s dominance of your brain seems to essentially have been eradicated. I think this is the desired result,”
comma, yes, question mark. (Laughter) And that was the exactly
the desired result. And finally, I allowed myself
a moment to introspect, like, how did I feel? And in one way, it felt like it was the same inventory of feelings
that I’d had at the outset. This isn’t “Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind.” The dude wasn’t a stranger. But I’d had love and jealousy
and amity and attraction and respect and all those complicated feelings
that you amass after long-term love. But it felt like the benevolent feelings
had risen to the surface, and the feelings of fixation
and the less-generous feelings weren’t quite so present. And that sounds like
a small thing in some way, this resequencing of feelings, but to me it felt like the biggest thing. Like, if I told you, “I’m going to anesthetize you, and I’m also going to take out
your wisdom teeth,” it would really matter to you the sequence
in which I did those two things. (Laughter) And I also felt like I’d had this really unusual
philosophical privilege to understand love. The lab offered to 3D-print my caudate. I got to hold love in my hand. (Laughter) And then I bronzed it, and I made it into a necklace and sold
it at the merch table at my shows. (Laughter) (Applause) And then, with the help of a couple
of friends back in Minneapolis, one of them Becky, we made an enormous disco ball of it — (Laughter) that could descend
from the ceiling at my big shows. And I felt like I’d had the opportunity
to better understand love, even the compulsive parts. It isn’t a neat, symmetrical
Valentine’s heart. It’s bodily, it’s systemic, it is a hideous pair of ram’s horns
buried somewhere deep within your skull, and when that special boy walks by, it lights up, and if he likes you back
and you make each other happy, then you fan the flames. And if he doesn’t, then you assemble a team
of neuroscientists to snuff them out by force. (Laughter) Thanks. (Applause)

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