When Dessa, a rapper and singer who is a member of the hip-hop crew Doomtree, found herself in a volatile on-again off-again relationship, she felt trapped. She knew it wasn't healthy to love her ex, but she couldn't figure out how to stop. So, she reached out to neuroscientists to see if they could find out where that love existed in her brain and maybe take it out.
The resulting one-person experiment helped Dessa reconcile her feelings, but it brought up questions as well. Questions like: Where does love come from? How much is it influenced by our choices? And can you be a good feminist if you crave partnership? The experiment and the questions it brought up have influenced Dessa's new album, Chime, on which she raps about love, relationships, feminism, and feeling "Boy Crazy."
So, we sat down with Dessa to see if she's found answers to any of her questions, and why she wanted to fall out of love in the first place.
Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to fall out of love?
"I’d had this long breakup that took 10 years to properly unravel. We both still had feelings for one another, but we weren’t able to get a viable relationship going. It didn’t help him to be in love with me, and it didn’t help me to be in love with him. But I couldn’t make the feeling go away. Then I saw a Ted Talk by Dr. Helen Fisher where she mentioned that she had been able to map the regions of the brain that activate when a person is in love."
I feel like we don’t think of love as a brain thing. We think of it as an emotion thing.
"True, and we don’t think of emotions as a brain thing either."
Right, but everything is a brain thing.
"Yes! So, I thought, wow, if you can really map the coordinates of love in your brain, then maybe if I could find my love in my brain, I could take it out. Maybe I could make it stop. So it started part as a science project, part as a desperate woman’s attempt to fall out of love, and part as a musical endeavor.
"I thought, what if I tried to design a method by which someone could heal from a breakup and not love somebody anymore? So, I went into an fMRI machine and I looked at pictures of my ex-boyfriend and pictures of a dude who kind of looked like my ex-boyfriend. We were trying to isolate the brain’s response, not just to facial recognition or to sexual attraction, but to love itself. There were three or four regions of my brain that all lit up when I was looking at my ex. I had almost a Polaroid of my love. I could see my brain in cross-section with the activities of loving this guy."
Do you still have those photos?
"Oh yeah. I flipped out. And then I thought, okay, so how do you get it out? I ended up contacting a woman named Pennijean Gracefire, who’s a neurofeedback technician — that’s the thing you see on TV when people put electrodes on someone's head so that you can see their brain function in real-time. We went and camped out together for a few days, and she would connect 22 electrodes to my head. I’d watch my brain function on a little TV, and I’d be rewarded with a little bit of music every time my brain operated in healthy thresholds, to see if slowly we could stop this hyperactivity.
"The music in and of itself wasn’t a reward in a way that a Snickers is a reward. It was more like calling attention to my brain when it was operating in this healthy threshold. The way that Pennijean described it is that I’m not brainwashing myself. What you’re trying to do is train your brain the way you train a muscle for strength and flexibility and resilience. My brain should be able to fall in love when I’m in a viable relationship. And when I’m not, then eventually it should be able to fall the fuck out of love you know?"
Did it work for you?
"I'll give a slow, careful, qualified nod. It’s not a scientific experiment, because I'm a sample-size of one, and there could be so many other variables that contribute. But after the neurofeedback, I still had all the same feelings, they were just proportioned differently. After you’ve been in love with someone and had a volatile relationship, you have love and lust and anger and admiration and resentment — you have this huge list of emotions. So, I feel like the good ones had risen to the top and I didn’t feel so compulsive and crazy. Because I was feeling nutty and fixated before. I don’t want to say I’m cured or I’m fixed, but it did feel helpful."
Has your neurofeedback experience influenced your work since?
"I knew I wasn’t interested in making a 'neuroscience rap,’ that’s unappetizing even to conceptualize. But I did like examining the ideas. Is love a willful thing? Is it elective? Do we choose to love people? Or is it like, I’m allergic to hazelnuts? You know. It’s just how I’m built. Am I just built to love this dude? Or do I have a choice?
"Even when you look at the language of songs. ‘I’m addicted to you.’ Or, ‘You’re my drug.’ Or, ‘I was born to love you.’ We have phrases that imply it’s a choiceless thing, and I wanted to investigate that, musically. So the way that the neuroscience informs my record isn’t that I have neuroscience terms in it. It was investigating those kinds of questions."
What was your consensus?
"I do think that how active our love is, is influenced by our choices. If you’re kicking it with homie all the time, that’s going to be harder because you’re salting the wound or gassing the fire."
So many people could relate to the feeling you had with your ex; that you feel crazy for having this kind of obsession with a person.
"Or that you’re insufficiently woke, like this is not a feminist’s feeling. Because I’m not being as fully self-sufficient and independent as I understand a modern girl should be. What I am is freaking out and shook and really craving the attention, love, and affection of someone. It makes you feel like you’re not out there being Xena: Warrior Princess. You’re watching your phone for texts and eating chocolate."
So what do you do to convince yourself that you’re a good feminist, even though you have those feelings?
"I don’t know if I am. I’m still working through it. How do you reconcile passionate, intense infatuation or love for someone with feminism?"
Was that part of the science of your own falling out of love? Were you trying to see how much of your feelings were innate versus how much you could control?
"I did want to know how much you could control, but also when I look at the healthiest relationships around me, I wasn’t participating in those patterns. I was feeling fixated. It wasn't just like, 'I love him and I want him to be happy.' Although, that’s what I wanted to want. I was feeling compulsive. Sometimes, the worst parts of me were brought to the fore by this love. I was feeling petty and creepy."
Do you think we can call those kinds of feelings love?
"I know how I want to behave when I’m in love. I want to feel amplified and generous. But I’m still wondering about the question: Is there just some love that’s good and some that’s bad? A lot of times when something doesn’t work then people say, ‘Well then it’s not love.’ I don’t buy that. Is it true that every abuser has not loved the abused? I don’t think it is. Is it broken? Yes. Is it objectionable? Yes. Are we going to say all of those relationships are not candidates for love? I don’t know.
"So I don’t know if my definition of love has changed, but I know how I’d like to look and feel in love. I like the idea of a Kung-Fu movie, where we’re back-to-back armed with bow-staffs and we’re like I got you, you got this, I got this. I want to help him, and I want to be helped. I want to be teammates and battle companions."
Since the case study, how have you seen potential partners differently?
"I don’t feel like I have a different list of criteria, but I am more skeptical of my instincts. It’s like, I like milk chocolate. If I didn’t know that you had to eat other things, I might not. But I do know that, so I eat other things sometimes. Well, I like charismatic, emotionally distant, artistic men. So can you temper what you’re most immediately drawn to with what’s going to serve you best long-term? I think a lot of people temper that, whether it’s just a gut-check or if you do some pros and cons. Some of that math, for me, has changed a little bit."
It’s relatively easy to eat things that aren’t milk chocolate. But is it as easy to let go of this magnetic attraction?
"No, it’s not. I don’t find that connection all that often. Milk chocolate is at every bodega. Talented, charismatic intellectuals are not at every bodega. So, yeah, I’m not saying that I’ve changed my behavior or I’m letting all these rad dudes go, because that’s not true. I’m saying that I think I’ve learned about my tastes enough to start to wonder if there’s a double-edge sometimes to the things that I’m attracted to. Or maybe it’s one of those things that when you meet the cat who you’re really going to lock with, then it all sorts out.
"Or you just go on a rap tour and don’t think about it. You just rap all day."
That works, too. I can just tell everyone to become a rapper.
"Yes! Here’s a thesaurus and a metronome. What are you doing for the next 10 years?"
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