Magnetism: Stories about attraction

This week, we present two stories about attraction, from the neuroscience of prairie voles to a physics love story.

Part 1: Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki is surprised when an acting exercise challenges her beliefs about love and attraction.

Jump to Wendy’s story >>

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neural Science and psychology at New York University.  She received her undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from U.C. San Diego.  She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health before starting her faculty position in the Center for Neural Science at New York University in 1998.  Wendy is a recipient of numerous grants and awards for her research including the Lindsley Prize from the Society for Neuroscience, the prestigious Troland Research award from the National Academy of Sciences and NYU’s Golden Dozen Teaching award. Her research has focused on understanding the patterns of brain activity underlying long-term memory and understanding how aerobic exercise affects mood, learning, memory and cognitive abilities. Her first book “Healthy Brain Happy Life” came out in paperback in March of 2016 and is an international bestseller. 

Part 2: Two physicists, Neer Asherie and Deborah Berebichez, find love after thirteen years.

Jump to Neer and Deborah’s story >>

Neer Asherie is a professor of physics and biology at Yeshiva University. He received a B.A. and M.A. in natural sciences (physical) from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in physics from MIT. He was awarded grants from the National Science Foundation to support his research on the self-assembly of globular proteins. His articles have appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Physical Review Letters, and Crystal Growth and Design. In addition to his scientific publications, Neer has authored a novel and several short plays. You can find his previous Story Collider story here.

Deborah Berebichez is the Chief Data Scientist at Metis, a Ph.D. physicist and a Discovery Channel TV host. She is the first Mexican woman to graduate with a physics Ph.D. from Stanford University. Dr. Berebichez is the co-host of Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science TV show (2012 – present) where she uses her physics background to explain the science behind extraordinary engineering feats. She also appears as an expert on the Travel Chanel, NOVA, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and numerous international media outlets. Deborah’s passion is to empower young people to learn science and to improve the state of STEM education in the world and her work in science outreach has been widely recognized. She is a John C. Whitehead Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and a recipient of the Top Latina Tech Blogger award by the Association of Latinos in Social Media LATISM. Currently at Metis she leads the creation and growth of exceptional data science training opportunities. You can find Deborah's previous Story Collider story here.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Wendy Suzuki

As a professor of neuroscience at NYU, one of the favorite things that I get to do is teach undergraduates. I’m always trying to motivate them, saying that neuroscience is so cool because, by studying neuroscience, you get to understand yourself, your unique self, how your brain cells are connected that allows you to see and feel and remember and pay attention to the world in the unique way that you do.

So in that vein, one of my most popular lectures that I give is called The Neurobiology of Love. It has to do with these hamster-like critters called prairie voles. They live out on the plains somewhere in Montana. These prairie voles are unique because they're one of the few animals that form lifelong sexual pair bonds. Yes, they are the Disney of animals out there. They're one of the only ones that actually do that.

They live in big, happy Brady Bunch-style family units out there on the plains, and you might wonder how a new pair bond forms if they're living in these family units. Well, let’s say you're a female juvenile prairie vole and you're walking down the path. Suddenly, you smell this intoxicating odor. That odor is the urine of a male prairie vole that’s not in your family unit. It’s not intoxicating if the urine is from a male in your family unit. But if it’s from a male outside of your family unit, it becomes intoxicating.

If the depositor of that intoxicating urine is around, a pair bond can form. How it forms is that that juvenile male and female then mate for forty hours straight. Let me say that again. The male and female mate for forty hours straight. After that, voila, they have formed a lifelong pair bond.

And neuroscientists saw that and said, “Wait a second. I need to find out what’s happening in their brains.” It turns out that it has to do with two key hormones. In the female prairie vole, during that forty-hour mating period, she releases a hormone called oxytocin. If you go to now, you can get snortable oxytocin that’s called Companion. Love potion. It doesn’t quite work that way.

In the males, during that forty-hour mating period, they have to release vasopressin. If the males don’t release vasopressin and the females don’t release oxytocin, those pair bonds don’t form. So it is a fascinating scenario and just, for those of you thinking, it doesn’t quite work exactly the same way in people, but still, it’s a fascinating system to study.

So I was so excited to develop this lecture. I finished all the slides and, really excited to be able to give this lecture, and I took a walk. I’m walking down Washington Square Park right down the street from my office and then I see him, the homeless man peeing against a tree. I realized that if I was a prairie vole, my life would be so convenient because that would be my Prince Charming. No more swiping, no more filling out little boxes. I thought for a moment and I was a little disappointed I wasn’t a prairie vole, because it would be so easy.

The other great thing about being at NYU is that I get to collaborate with all the other cool professors at NYU. I came together with the director of the graduate acting program of the world-famous Tisch School of Performing Arts. We decided to do a seminar for my neuroscience majors. So I’m the director of undergraduate studies. This was a special seminar. It was going to be called Inside the Actor’s Brain.

Of course I was going to talk about the emotion that all the sonnets, all movies, all the plays are about: love and attachment. So I was going to tell my prairie vole story. And then he was going to bring all of the graduate actors in the graduate acting program and demonstrate how actors bring emotions and practice their own emotions. You have to realize, these are the actors that are going to win the Academy Award in the next ten to twenty years.

So very excited, it was really popular. Full house. We get there. I stand up, give my prairie vole talk, and then they call up all the graduate actors to the stage. It happens that one of the acting coaches that I know was going to do the exercise. I had done an exercise with him and, spontaneously -- I didn’t decide I was going to do this -- I raised my hand and said, “Well, I want to do the exercise too.” I helped organize this so I can do whatever I want.

So I go up on the stage, I get up on the stage with all of the graduate actors. I quickly realize this was nothing like the other acting exercise that I did. We got in two rows facing each other, so I had a partner and was facing him. The first instruction from the coach was, “You're looking at somebody that you love deeply, this person that’s been in your life for years, through good times, through bad times. This is a deep love that you feel.”

Now, it was very intense. These were all serious students. And I decided to interpret it like general love. So my strategy was to project all the different kinds of loves that I feel onto this guy. Family love, romantic love, friendship love, love for people that I've lost and I no longer have in my life anymore. It was so easy to do because when I looked at this handsome, young graduate student with these beautiful dark eyes, he looked like he loved me deeply. So it was a very easy exercise.

I don't know how long we did it, but then came the next command. He was giving commands to different rows. So the first command was to the other row that I was facing. The command was “Take one step away from your partner.” Nobody moved. He thought nobody heard him and he said, “Hey, you, row, please step one step back.” Still nobody. It took five times to actually get them to move like half a step back because we were bonded and we didn’t want to move away.

Then the next command came to us and he said, “Okay, my row, you can either step forward and say ‘I’m sorry,’ or you can take one step away from your partner and say ‘I love you’.

This was easy. I took one step away and I said, “I love you.” Other people did whatever they wanted at different times.

We did these exercises until the big question came. So sometime in the middle of the exercise, he told our row, he said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but the person that you're looking at right now has deceived you badly. Just, at the bottom of your heart, your heart is broken because this person has deceived you.”

You could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium. Then suddenly everybody in my row started crying. I felt like crying too, and I’m a group crier, so I started crying. Forget the fact that all my undergraduates were in the audience watching me on stage cry. I wasn’t thinking about them.

We went on through these different exercises. We had different choices after this big reveal of the deception and suddenly -- it felt like just five minutes later -- the exercise ended. The coach did debriefings with some of the graduate actors. He was fielding questions, lots of questions from the audience.

Suddenly, he said, “Well, Wendy, you're the only non-actor up on the stage. What did you go through? What was your experience?”

And I said, “When you told me that my partner deceived me, I knew you were wrong.” I could see it in his eyes. I mean, it was so clear he was just telling me he didn’t do it.

Then the exercise was over and he leaves the stage. And I’m like, But we had something. Where are you going?

Of course the exercise was over. I left the stage. We had this last part of the event. It was a big success. It was thirty minutes over. Everybody stayed and students started coming up to me asking questions, but I’m like, I’m going to go meet my guy. I mean, I don't even know his name.

Finally, the questions stopped and I go into the hallway and I see him eating pizza. So I go over and very casual, “Hey, great doing the exercise with you.” I introduce myself and we give each other a hug, and I left the building.

I left the building thinking, Thank God I am not an actor because that was so emotional. I don't think I could do that every day.

So I happily went back to my own building and went and started designing experiments and teaching and got into my work again. I didn’t think about this exercise and this experience for a whole month. Until one day, this was in February, the end of February I was walking south down Broadway away from my building. It was one of those really beautiful, bright winter days, kind of like today where the light is very metallic looking.

And I’m walking down the street. I could picture exactly where I was, and I saw him. He was walking towards me and he was deep in conversation with another guy that I recognized from the graduate acting program. It was like everything went in slow motion. We started walking and my hair was bouncy. And he was walking, and I even heard background music in my ears. I mean, he just passed and I was just in awe. I thought this was amazing, this five-minute kind of exercise, and a month later, I’m still deeply in love.

Here’s the problem. Nobody told me how to act. I just fell in love with this guy. And I thought, Oh, my God, we have just blown the prairie voles out of the water because, I’m sorry, you cannot understand what happened in that situation just by studying prairie voles. But I also knew how you could. Let’s get those actors into a brain scanner and have them cycle through all of their emotions. Because if they were as real as emotions that I felt, we could understand deeply and much more deeply than we understand now this range of emotions, including love.

Then I thought, Well, I always said it. Neuroscience is cool because it helps you understand yourself. And usually by that I think about vision and memory, but it helps you understand what makes you most unique: how you love other people. It’s practical too because you have to understand that, the next time I want to fall in love with somebody, I have some powerful tricks up my sleeve.

Thank you very much.

Part 2: Neer Asherie and Deborah Berebichez

Deborah: So I grew up in Mexico City in a community that was fairly conservative and discouraged women from pursuing a career in science. I was very much in love with physics and math, and I wanted to discover the laws of the universe and how things worked. My mom told me at a very young age to not tell anybody in school that I liked math and physics because, probably, I would never be able to get married, and that nearly happened.

But I learned to hide my love for physics. So my advisers in school were no better and they told me the same thing. So when it came time to apply to college, I applied for philosophy because I thought, Oh, I could ask all the questions that I want to know and find out about the world.

So I started to study philosophy for two years, but we have a French educational system in Mexico where you cannot study other subjects simultaneously. So after two years, I decided to burst out and I said, “No, I wanna study physics.” So I applied behind everyone’s back. Just like, you know, a lot of kids do crazy stuff when they're teenagers, I was like reading books about Tycho Brahe and Isaac Newton and really cool stuff, but I had to hide it.

So I applied to a school and finally I got a wonderful scholarship and I couldn’t say no to that. So I went to Brandeis University, which is a small school in Massachusetts. I met a mentor from India, a wonderful grad student who allowed me to skip the first two years of the physics major so that I could cram everything in a summer and be able to finish in the time that I had the scholarship, which was two years. [Ed note: See Deborah's original Story Collider story.]

I finished that and then my family wanted me to come back to Mexico so that, again, they would be able to tell me that I would not be able to get married having done that. I was just too hungry for knowledge and to continue to pursue my doctorate in physics. So I went to look for places and schools around Boston and I ended up visiting MIT. That’s where I met this really nice geeky guy.

Neer: Yes, that’s me. And I was, at the time, the senior graduate student in the lab and one of your many duties as the senior graduate student in the lab is to show prospective students around the lab and make them feel that it’s the best place in the world. Actually, for me, it was. I was a lucky person there. So I didn’t need to do too much convincing and I showed Deborah all the great equipment we had. It was a laser lab. We were doing laser light sky. Yes, I know. It really was a laser. That’s not a euphemism. It was a laser. But I did, of course, keep a sort of distant professional tone because I thought, Well, what if she does arrive? I don't want anything weird to happen. So I was very formal with her, I think.

Deborah: So at the time, I decided I’m going to go back to Mexico City for a while, be with my family and then I’m going to do a masters in physics there. I wasn’t ready to pursue my PhD. Then a year and a half later, we kept in touch and I got accepted, but I got accepted on the West Coast to Stanford. And I went to MIT because I was about to hear from them, and I did get accepted there. I went back that summer to see if we could hang out and I could decide between both options.

Neer: At that point, I had already graduated. I had my PhD so I didn’t need to be professional anymore. And yeah, we made out, basically. We were together for a month.

Deborah: As far as physicists can make out, if you know what I mean.

Neer: Ouch

Deborah: So it was a pretty innocent relationship. I thought he was brilliant but…

Neer: He still is.

Deborah: But husband material? Maybe not so much. So I decided… well, actually you were pretty selfless because you said…

Neer: Yeah, I know. There's a statue commemorating the event somewhere in MIT. Because I told Deborah you have MIT on one hand and you have Stanford, and actually the person behind the offer at Stanford was Steve Chu. You may have heard of him. He won a Nobel Prize then and also became, eventually, Secretary of Energy for President Obama, so a big deal.

I said, “You know, you should go to Stanford. I know that it means long distance for us, but it’s the better place for you.”

Deborah: Amazing. So I ended up going to Stanford and working with Steve Chu. And our relationship didn’t really last. It was all my fault.

Neer: You know your relationship is in trouble when your girlfriend tells you not to visit her for Thanksgiving.

Deborah: I was just overwhelmed. I mean, a physics PhD for somebody who had like two, three years before not remembering algebra. Like a plus b, all that squared. I didn’t even remember that. And I was here with the crème de la crème, with all the wizards that had won Mathematics Olympics. I just couldn’t focus on men.

Neer: No, you had to focus on one man. It’s just the word “men,” it’s just…

Deborah: Yeah, you mean Isaac Newton.

Neer: Technically, you also have to focus on Albert Einstein because relativity is examined in part of the qualifying exams in Stanford. At least they did at MIT.

Deborah: I probably failed that part.

So I ended up pursuing my degree there. And I was depressed and struggling. It was just a really hard time. But I did end up going to the American Physical Society, which is a very large conference with thousands of physicists, and I ended up going to his talk.

Neer: Yes. So we had broken up because, eventually, when your girlfriend doesn’t want to see you, it’s hard to maintain the relationship. But I broke up [with her] after the qualifying exams.

Deborah: He was a saint.

Neer: I did it the proper way.

So then I am at this premier conference for physics in the United States and about to give a talk. Of course, I’m all in my head getting ready with the talk, and who comes in? Deborah. I’m like, Ah, just what I needed. My ex.

But I still managed somehow. I don't know how, I kept it together. I gave a talk and then we talked after that.

Deborah: Well, you actually kissed me.

Neer: I did. I kissed you. But that’s my way of communicating physics when I’m really excited. We did kiss, but we did not get back together, which is…

Deborah: Yeah, that was it. I kind of wanted to, but it was confusing and I went back to Stanford and long distance just didn’t work out for us. So thirteen years went by.

Neer: Thirteen years, people.

Deborah: Then a sad thing happened in my family. My dad passed away all of a sudden in Mexico City. It was really tragic because we’re three daughters and I’m the oldest, and both my younger sisters were married and with kids already. After all, I was like the black sheep in the family.

So I went back to Mexico and I was just destroyed. And my sister told me, “You know what? We have to sell that home. And you're the only one who‘s kept all that stuff, all the memories and letters and stuff from when you were growing up because you haven't really moved out. So I have room to keep ten boxes for you. That’s it. That’s all I have in my house. So you better clean out your room and just pack what you need.”

So I started to clean out my room. It took me a whole month. Then I found Neer’s letters from thirteen years before. And poems and funny pictures that you all geeky people out there would really love. Like just getting into the hallways at MIT and classrooms that you can only get by borrowing some important person’s key and taking funny pictures with writing on the board like, “Nudity is sinful.” All kinds of like crazy, geeky stuff.

I was like, Wow, he was such a terrific guy. So nice and so ready to get married. So probably, very likely he's married and with kids by now. Oh, how sad. I was miserably single at the time.

So I just packed everything in a folder and kept it, and I said, “One day, I'll write a book, a novel about this crazy affair between two physicists.” So I put it there and after thirteen years of not hearing from him or Googling him or anything, I moved back to New York.

Neer: And what happened is I actually, by a strange coincidence, was single at the time and never married, no children. True. And I actually had been single for about twenty minutes. My friends said to me, “Look, you gotta do something about this. Why don’t you go online?” Until then, I was very skeptical of online dating. I didn’t think it was the way to go. And they worked on me and pushed hard, really put a lot of pressure on me.

Deborah: They worked on you. You should have seen the pictures on his profile. He looked like a pedophile.

Neer: So I got a profile up on Match. Some of you may know how Match works. After you're up and running, you start getting matches. I got twelve. They're like eggs. They send you twelve of them. I’m looking at them and I’m thinking, I paid eighty-five dollars for this? They can’t even spell!

So I was very disappointed. It was late at night. It was around midnight. Just then, my sister, who happened to live one floor below me, said… (She was in the room, though. This is not through the apartment.) She said, “You don’t have to just accept Matches. Why don’t you search for some things?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, search by some criterion that’s important to you.”

I said, “Well, you know, I'd really like to meet a woman who speaks more than one language. That’s very important for me.”

So I did a search on Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, and the first person to come up with a ninety-eight percent match was ScienceGirl13, who was not using her real name, but I recognized her by her picture because she looked exactly the same after thirteen years.

Deborah: I thought you said I had improved?

Neer: Yeah. Maybe I did. Maybe I did.

Anyway, so now I had not written, been in touch with her for thirteen years because I was the kind of “the past is the past and you move on to greener pastures,” and here I’m back at the same pasture. I thought about it, but I said, You know, it’s been so long. What the heck.

I wrote her a long and, if I may say so, beautiful email in Spanish. Because I had learned Spanish for her. Deborah didn’t know this. I learned Spanish because… Well, basically saying maybe we can meet again. Then I, boom, sent it.

Deborah: Well, first of all, you said to me that you learned Spanish because you didn’t want people to think that you had only started to learn it for a woman. So you continued with it for your own sake.

Neer: So this is a public forum. But let’s get this straight. So what happened was I started learning it for you then we broke up in second-semester Spanish, and it’s just terrible to drop a class mid-semester. It looks very bad. Even though I was just taking it as a listener, it’s just not good, so then I continued.

After that, I said, Look, if I drop it now, people will think, “oh, he just learned Spanish for a woman. He wasn’t really into Spanish.” So I did three more semesters.

Deborah: So here I am receiving this amazing email, but I freaked out because I had just been back from Mexico and, three months before, I had gone through this really difficult time in my life and I receive this email. He was… I don't know. It confused me.

So I write back just one sentence like, “Wow, this is weird. I recently reread your letters. Like, are you in New York?”

Neer: After thirteen years, “Wow, this is weird.”

So that was not what I was expecting. In fact, I was almost about to not reply because there was not even a Dear Neer or a hello. Hello would have been nice. But I did notice one thing. Somehow, I have this habit of checking the time at which people send me emails and I notice that she had sent it to me twenty minutes after I had sent it to her. So somewhere around 12:30 a.m., and I realized…

Deborah: So you knew I was desperate.

Neer: Absolutely. I got a chance.

So then what I did is I said, Okay, if this is the game we’re playing, I'll write back in English. And I said, “Yes, hello, Deborah. I do live in New York and I hope you enjoyed rereading the letters. Would you like to meet for coffee and tea? Because coffee and tea is over in twenty minutes, and if things don’t work out and we’re strangers, we can move on with our lives.”

Deborah: While honoring my Mexican-Lithuanian heritage, I wrote back saying, “After thirteen years coffee or tea? I'd rather do vodka or tequila.”

Neer: So I said, “Well, if you're going to raise me drinks, I re-raise you dinner. And let’s go out to dinner,” which we did.

Deborah: So we met for dinner. March…

Neer: 28th. March 28th.

Deborah: It was an amazing dinner. My legs were shaking. It was weird, again.

And then I had a great memory. I remember a lot of…

Neer: You just forgot the date we met. Your memory was okay. You remembered portions of my life.

Deborah: You remembered everything.

Neer: I did. Somehow I remembered… you had had a birthday. We met in March and your birthday was February 13, and that surprised you that I remembered your birthday.

Then you said, “Well, yes. And I remember yours, April 25th,” and I said, “Close. December 29th.”

But that’s when I knew I had the upper hand and that’s why I kissed her in the elevator on the way down. And we've been…

Deborah: And then I knew this was it for me. I was like head over heels right that moment.

Neer: And a year and a half later, we got married.

Deborah: We got married and we had this amazing wedding. The backdrop of our ceremony was an image taken of a galaxy by the Hubble Telescope. We had this really cool physics wedding. Everything around there was physics.

Neer: There was a robot.

Deborah: A few months ago, our first daughter was born. And we like to perform a lot of physics experiments on her.

Neer: We do.

Deborah: Not a lot of them she likes.

Neer: No, but she's a good sport.

Deborah: Yes. So I think…

Neer: Well, I know that you're always going to be my second love after physics.

Deborah: It’s going to be the same for me.

Neer: I know.

Deborah: But you know what?

Neer: What?

Deborah: I’m thinking about the wedding and I know you owe me a kiss in public, because you didn’t give me one at our wedding even though we planned for it.

Neer: That is true. I got nervous and forgot to kiss the bride.

Deborah: He shook my hand!

Neer: Yes. It’s on video. But I'll kiss you now.

[Neer and Deborah kiss.]

Deborah: Thank you.

Neer: Thank you very much.