Home » DESSA: Can We Choose to Fall Out of Love? (Transcript)

DESSA: Can We Choose to Fall Out of Love? (Transcript)

DESSA at TEDxWanChai


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. And I make my living as a performing and 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 on stage. Sometimes there are completely intentional body checks on stage. 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? You always make music to bleed out to.”

And I thought, who are you hanging out with that? You know that phrase?

But over the course of my career, I’d 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 break-up.”

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 ten.

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.

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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.”

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.

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, always lights 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.

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.”

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.

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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 caudate.

After she’d had time to analyze the data with her team and a couple of partners, Andrew 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 knew — 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.

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 neural feedback. That’s a technique that’s sometimes used with epileptics or with veterans who were suffering from PTSD, or maybe someone who’s on an autism spectrum and is working through behavioral problems.

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.

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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 Penijean and I decided to work at my dad’s house because we knew that we wanted to spend several evenings together to do some intensive brain-training sessions, and my dad had room to put us up.

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 were 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.

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