Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode In & Out Of Love.
About Dessa's TED Talk
For years, musician Dessa tried to get over a toxic relationship. But she couldn't figure out how — until she tried something unconventional: using neuroscience to dull her feelings for her ex.
Dessa is a musician and author. She began her career in Minneapolis with the Doomtree hip-hop crew. She has released several albums, including Sound The Bells, which was recorded live with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2019.
She is the author of My Own Devices. She has also been published by the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and literary journals across the country.
Dessa's work with Doomtree and as a solo artist has been featured on the Billboard Top 200 charts. In 2016, she appeared on The Hamilton Mixtape. Dessa was called "a national treasure" by NPR's All Songs Considered.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And by the way, Helen actually inspired our next guest to try to use neuroscience to fall out of love, to get rid of her feelings for an ex-boyfriend.
DESSA: Yeah, I wanted it out. I don't want to spend, like, all my good years obsessing on this dude who I can't win with.
RAZ: This is Dessa. She's a musician, and you're actually hearing one of her songs. And for a long time, Dessa was desperately trying to move on from an unhealthy relationship.
DESSA: It was one of those volatile ones, you know, where it's almost, like, difficult to put the relationship up against the tape measure to figure out how long it lasted because it was on and off for so long. But I would say that we first met and fell into love when we were 21 years old, and we were still tempted to try to give it another shot, like, 14 years later.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY ME")
DESSA: (Singing) Hello. It's only me. I know it's late.
RAZ: And was it - like, how would you characterize your relationship?
DESSA: The most confident description that I could give it would be passionate, playful, unconventional, I think. I would also say it was bitterly sad, jealous, lonely. And I think that I've learned about the smallest of my feelings. Like, I really got to meet the worst of me in that relationship.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY ME")
DESSA: (Singing) Love is never free.
RAZ: So here you are in a situation that I think millions people can relate to - right? - the irrationality of being in love with somebody who you know is not right, is not the right person.
DESSA: Yes (laughter).
RAZ: Did you feel trapped?
DESSA: I felt spun out. I felt sad. I also felt sort of embarrassed. Like, it did not jive with my feminist intuitions to be so torn up over a dude for so long.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ONLY ME")
DESSA: (Singing) Hello. It's only me.
It started to get harder. So it's, like, even the - if you can imagine being on stage and it's loud and there are bright lights and everybody's had a few shots of whiskey, like, that bombast and that big victory feeling, both hands in the air and the big bow at the end, it was just getting harder to do because I knew that when I got off stage I was going to be so sad again.
RAZ: Here's more from Dessa on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DESSA: 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 my 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.
DESSA: 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 the - Dr. Fisher's protocol, and we decided to recreate it with a sample size of one - me.
DESSA: 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 the 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.
And when I left the machine, we had these really high-resolution images of my brain. After she'd 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. 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.
DESSA: And I also felt like an assassin who had her mark - that was what I had to annihilate.
RAZ: Wow. So there was, like, a red beacon just coming out of this part of your brain when you saw photos of your ex-boyfriend, which I guess meant that your feelings for him resided in that very spot.
DESSA: It was in exactly the places that Dr. Fisher's study had thought. So, like, the anterior cingulate - yes.
DESSA: And the ventral tegmental region. And I started to cry in a coffee shop because I - don't know - it was really emotionally salient.
RAZ: All right, so you've identified the part of your brain that is in love, and now you know where it is, and maybe you can, you know, do something about it. Maybe you can actually zap it, sort of.
DESSA: Right. I ended up putting out another call on Twitter. I knew that I wanted to try to change that dot in my head. It was almost like - I imagine, like, you know PX90 (ph) ads in magazines?
DESSA: How there's, like, the before picture? Yeah.
RAZ: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah, and the after.
DESSA: So, like, I had my before picture, yes.
RAZ: So you have your before picture, and you're looking to go to your after picture, like, the picture of your brain without the red dot in it.
DESSA: So I ended up working with this woman named Penijean Gracefire, and she was a clinician for neuro feedback. So essentially, you've got all these sensors affixed to your scalp, and they're measuring the electricity that your brain is generating, like, right through the bone and through the hair, so you can see what parts of your brain are active in real time. She'd done some research on, like, what parts of the brain were responsible for emotional regulation, and she thought, OK, I think we should target these areas in your head (laughter) to try to see if we can get them to be a little less vigilant, to chill out.
And we worked at my dad's house because he has a flat-screen TV, so I could see my brain big. I could see, like, waves of color passing over this image of my brain that indicated which parts were hyperactive, which parts were hypoactive. And then the way that she described it, which I found helpful, was like - we're not trying to blunt your brain's ability to fall in love; we are trying to do - is, like, analogous to the way that you might train a muscle at the gym. You're trying to strengthen it. You're trying to make it more flexible. What - really, what you're trying to do is make sure that it can respond in a way that's appropriate to its circumstance.
DESSA: So whenever my brain would dip towards lower levels of activity...
DESSA: ...Not only could I see it, but I could hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DESSA: And every time my brain operated in that healthy threshold, I got a little run of harp or vibraphone music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DESSA: And I just watched my brain rotate at roughly the speed of a gyro machine on my dad's flat-screen TV. She said the learning would be essentially unconscious. But then I thought about the other things that 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's doing or latissimus dorsi knows to engage when I wobble to the right; the body just learns. And similarly, like, 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. And after she had time to analyze that second set of data, 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?
DESSA: It wasn't the case that I felt like I was now, like, a loveless robot. You know what I mean?
DESSA: I didn't feel like Spock. And it wasn't the case that I'd forgotten anything, if that makes sense; like, I hadn't erased any memories. But I did feel some relief.
RAZ: You did feel like you extracted some of those feelings of love, those strong feelings of love?
DESSA: The compulsion.
DESSA: I just wasn't so wrapped around the axle; I wasn't, you know? And I wasn't crying on it like I used to, and I wasn't - I don't know. I just had felt so, like, obsessively compulsive, you know?
DESSA: And, I mean, obviously, like, I'm a sample size of one, right? But on the other hand, to be frank, it's like, I had been trying to get over this so many ways for so many years. But, yeah, I haven't gone back to that place that I was beforehand of feeling really kind out of - like, out of my own control.
RAZ: Does it make you feel more open to meeting another person?
DESSA: Oh, interesting. I mean, OK, I don't know if this is - this might be wishful thinking on my part. But before this, I thought, you have to get over this guy completely if you're ever going to have an honest relationship again.
DESSA: And I think that makes sense. Like, you don't want to hamstring a new relationship by being cluttered with some strong, old feeling. But by this point, I think the task is to be, like, as generous to your next partner and to yourself, be frank about how much, like, emotional capacity you have. And I don't know. I have the feeling that the man that I love next will have some passionate loves in his rearview mirror as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL OFF YOUR GHOST")
DESSA: (Singing) We've been living too long, too close. And I'm ready to let you go. I'm ready.
RAZ: That's the musician Dessa. You can find her full talk at ted.com.
On the show today, In and Out of Love. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.