“Marital Counseling”

“We’re out of sync. I need more than talk to prove that you love me,” said the wife.

The degree of brain activation on the husband’s fMRI failed to reach the minimal levels considered low normal for love. “Your scan is consistent with mid-level fondness,” said the radiological psychiatrist.

The wife pulled out her smartphone and compared his scan with a succession of recently downloaded examples of great romances, both live and virtual. By contrast with these festive neon-bright declarations, her husband’s dim bulb smudges were barely worth noting.

“Maybe it’s a false negative. I know what I feel,” the husband offered.

“Why don’t you repeat the scan after an intimate vacation?” The psychiatrist ceremoniously wrote Tahiti in large caps on her prescription pad.

“We are at our worst with travel,” the wife said. She looked to her husband for agreement. He nodded, comforted in the momentary intimacy of a team confession.

“Fondness shouldn’t be taken lightly,” the doctor said. “I’ve seen a lot less in a number of couples who are glad that they stuck it out.”

“I can get a dog for companionship,” said the wife. “I want love.”

“Are there brain exercises that might help?” the husband asked. “A love Viagra? I’ve read that deep brain stimulations can affect mood.”

The wife shook her head. “I’m not interested in jimmied-up circuits. I want natural, organic, pure affection from the heart.”

The psychiatrist wanted to warn the wife. Too often she’d seen generic, non-specific, mid-life weariness ruin what might, with proper tending, have grown into a ‘not so bad after all.’ When doing talk therapy, she’d tried to steer patients into acknowledging disappointment without feeling the urge to blame someone or something. Eventually she’d grown weary of running uphill against human nature and had shifted to scan interpretations and neural remodeling. Nowadays, she saw her job as a daily battle between sticking to hard evidence and the age-old need to offer hope.

She adjusted her reading glasses and took another look at the scan. After a measured pause, she pointed out a barely visible reddish-purple blush at the tip of the left temporal lobe. “This finding is in the gray area. Perhaps it’s nothing, but, on the other hand, it could be a subtle sign of love. For comparison, do you have any earlier scans, say from your first days together?”

“My mother begged me to get one before we married, but I was too afraid of what it might show.”

“I had the same thoughts,” the husband said. “But I wanted you so badly. I still do.”

He’s trying, the wife told herself. While focusing on the questionable reddish spot, she was surprised by her mind’s eye appearance of the first flower buds at the tail end of winter, bits of pink against a white blanket of snow. “So this might be something?” she said to the doctor.

The psychiatrist smiled and pushed the prescription for Tahiti in their direction. The woman picked it up, slipped it in her purse, then reached out and took her husband’s hand. As they left the office, still holding hands, the wife looked up and saw the same potential area of scan enhancement in her husband’s gaze.

After the couple left, the psychiatrist finished dictating her scan report. “At the very tip of the left temporal lobe is a minute artifact of no clinical significance. All findings should be considered normal for age.”

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Robert Burton is a neurologist and author of several novels including Doc-In-A-Box (Soho Press) and Cellmates (Dell), two books on neuroscience and philosophy, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press 2013). Recent writings have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and Op-Ed section (The Stone), Nautilus, Aeon, Neurology, and Salon. His website is rburton.com.