Quantifying Love: The Biology of Romantic Love

What is REALLY happening when we fall in love? In this episode we talk with the person who revolutionized the science behind romantic love- Dr. Lucy Brown talks with us about how she conducts groundbreaking research that measures romantic love. Later in the episode, Lucy and Tamar talk about their relationship story. If you liked this episode, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Transcript
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Hello and welcome to So Curious, presented by the Franklin Institute.

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We are your hosts. I am the Bul Bey.

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And I'm Kirsten Michelle Cills.

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Bey and I are so stoked to bring you this

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season that talks all about the science behind love, sex and relationships.

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Everything from your brain on love, to why

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we obsess over our favorite television characters, to how science and tech are

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actually changing our relationships with other people.

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In this episode, we talked to Dr.

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Lucy Brown about the science of romantic love.

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And then later on, we are going to

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actually talk to an actual couple about their actual relationship story.

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... Actually. What do you feel when you're in love?

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Like, what do you think is going on within you?

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The sparks and the butterflies and all that jazz.

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I feel like love is genuinely like your brain on drugs.

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It's, weirdly, it's addicting.

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You're, like, addicted to that person.

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You're addicted to the way that they make

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you feel, emotionally, mentally, physically.

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I feel like your confidence goes up.

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I feel like I'm a whole new lady when I walk around in love because it's like,

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"someone loves me!" Okay, in theory, this person loves me back, right?

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Is that what you're... Okay, great.

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I should have spelled it right. Yeah.

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Am I just pining of someone from afar? That happens, too.

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Yeah. I feel like being in love is...

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I don't know the science behind this.

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I missed a lot of school as a kid.

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But I imagine that your brain, when you're in love, is lit up, right?

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Yeah. How about you, Bey?

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I know gas is involved, so I m ight belch a couple of times.

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Your stomach might turn. What's going on?

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I get certainly really energized.

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I have a partner, and I still find myself

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being really intrigued and excited to do things...

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Like an activity. Like, do you want to go to the movies?

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Like, we were talking about that movie.

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I won't say the name,

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but going out to the movies and going to dinner, I get excited, certainly.

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So I get charged.

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Kind of like I had a Red Bul or something. Yeah, right.

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And you should, if you're in love, still

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be stoked to be like, "you want to just go walk around the mall?

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You want to go sit at the dog park and look at those dogs?" Hell yeah, I do!

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For sure. Because I love you.

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Absolutely. Our first guest is Dr.

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Lucy Brown. Dr.

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Lucy Brown knows all about what's really going on when we experience romantic love.

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Let's bring on Dr. Lucy Brown now.

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Thank you so much for joining us.

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Lucy, do you mind just introducing

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yourself, telling us a little bit about where you are, what you do?

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I'm a neuroscientist (and I've been so

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curious about the brain my whole career), a neuroscientist who has looked at over

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100 brain scans of people in love at different stages of love.

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I've done that at Einstein College of

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Medicine, where I'm a clinical professor in neurology.

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Now, mainly what I do is write about these studies.

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Can you explain some of the differences between when it comes to love, the

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intangibles, and the concrete science behind romantic love?

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I think we all have this feeling that

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romance, especially when we first fall in love, it's magic.

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Hey, where did that come from?

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Many of us don't have the words for it, but poets do.

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So we often look to the poets, like Shakespeare, for words for this.

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What's interesting is science can quantify this in several different ways.

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And first, just behaviorally.

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People, when they're near the person they're newly in love with, maybe their

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voice trembles a little bit, the palms can get sweaty.

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Probably the most important

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measure, though, of romantic love is how often you think about the other person

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during the day and how you orient your life toward that other person.

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We even have a questionnaire called a

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Passionate Love Scale." And one of the most important questions there is, how

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often do you have these intrusive thoughts?

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So this is one of the ways of science.

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It's a behavioral way.

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But then the brain imaging studies were

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fascinating because they told us that the parts of the brain that are active in

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everybody who's in love are at the reflex level.

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So, no wonder we have a hard time

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verbalizing, or feels like it comes from nowhere.

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Can you talk to us about how you actually look into someone's brain?

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And how does a, I guess, air quotes, normal brain look?

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We used brain imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging.

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Your listeners, many of your listeners may

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have had an MRI, as we call it, and we're able to measure blood flow changes, so

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that's like changes in energy demands, just like you have in your muscles...

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Wow. ...When you're using them a lot.

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So, parts of the brain that are very active when people are looking at a

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picture of their romantic partner, compared to a picture of an acquaintance.

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So we compared those two activation levels in the brain within the same person.

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What does the in-love brain look like physically?

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How would you describe that physically?

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It's not going to look any different from when you're in love or out of love.

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There's no physical difference.

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It's a functional difference.

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And so what we're doing when we're in love

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is we're activating these natural systems that have been there all along, but we're

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going to activate them , even more, when we're in love.

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I want to shift our focus to you and your story just a second.

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What experiences did you have personally

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that led you to taking on romance as a focus?

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At first, the idea to study romantic love,

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when it was first brought up to me, I thought, I'm not sure we can do that.

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How do you really define romantic love?

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Fisher first asked me if I'd study romantic love with her.

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I had always been interested in euphoria, though.

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What made us feel good?

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Other people were studying depression and

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drug addiction and yes, that's all clinically relevant and important, but I

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was really interested in the opposite of that.

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Let's find out something about the good, healthy euphoric stages of life.

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And as soon as I found out that there was

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something called the Passionate Love Scale that we could put a number on something

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like romantic love, I said, okay, I'm willing to try.

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Also, of course, romance is an interesting thing.

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I, certainly, before I started these studies, I just took it for granted.

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This isn't something to just take for

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granted and say, "oh, this happens." This is something that we should understand.

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So that's what got me into it.

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So let's say you're studying someone who is freshly in love, right?

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They are just falling in love.

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They're in the height of it.

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Have you been able to study those same people, still in love with the same

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person, but years into their relationship, their marriage?

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Have you seen a difference?

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We haven't looked at the same person over time, but we've looked at one group in the

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early stage and another group that has been married for 10 or 20 years.

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But we did look at people who said they

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were still in love with their romantic partner.

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There are people out there who say that

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even after ten years of marriage, it's just like the first six months. But

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because it changes, it's attachment, the biggest thing that changes in the brain is

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we get the activation still in that reward system that's at the reflex level, but

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also activation in parts of the brain that have to do with attachment and more of

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this long-term caring, and more of the hormones like vasopressin and oxytocin,

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and just more cognitive information and more memories.

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There is more thought that goes into it.

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There is less obsession.

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After long-term, you can go to work as well as be in love.

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When you're in school, years later, you can do other things.

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That's funny you say that.

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It does feel when you're first falling in

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love, it does feel impossible to go to work, go to the grocery store.

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It feels like you can't do anything other than want to talk to that person.

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What are those stages of romance and love and those intense feelings?

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Yeah. Are there terms for those scientifically?

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Almost as many researchers as there are

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for this would come up with different stages.

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But there's certainly the early -stage, intense romantic love.

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Everybody agrees on that.

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Then, how long that lasts?

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Many different estimates, anything from six months to ten years.

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There is, though, for sure a switch from that obsession to more attachment.

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It's calmer.

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The two big stages are the early stage when there's some anxiety, a fair amount

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of anxiety, often as a matter of fact, and then the later stage when there's much

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less anxiety, it's a warmer, safer feeling.

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So are there any connections that you've

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found, or anyone has found in science, between feelings of love and biological

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things like cognitive ability, memory, long-term brain or physical health?

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Is it biologically good for a person to be in love?

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There are no brain studies on this, but

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there are plenty of psychologists who have studied this and looked at it.

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And indeed, it seems that people who have a partner do better health-wise, and

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there's some evidence that they even live a little bit longer.

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It's probably part of this activation of the reward system.

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But of course, just having someone else

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around means there's someone else watching to see, asking you, how are you feeling?

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Should you go to the doctor?

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When there's someone around to just walk

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down the street with you, to protect you, maybe help you if you're about to fall?

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I mean, those kinds of things, of course, are going to be part of a relationship and

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part of the reason that you're going to do better and thrive more.

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That makes me think of those stories you hear of elderly married couples who have

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been married forever and ever, and when one of them passes away, sometimes the

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other one does within the next year or two.

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And I always thought of it as like you're dying from a broken heart.

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But you're so right about also the

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logistics of having another person to keep you safe and keep you accountable.

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That's so interesting.

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You co-created the website The Anatomy of

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Love, which Bey and I were looking at right before we hopped on here.

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And can you tell us about the different

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aspects of this website, why you created it?

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I know you said you had partnered with someone.

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I partnered with Helen Fisher, who's an anthropologist, and she had studied love

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for many years before I began studies with her, and Art Aaron, who is a psychologist.

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So the three of us, it was a great collaboration.

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We really wanted people to be able to look up the results of these studies, because

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our motto for the website is "Know Thy Brain," okay?

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Know Thyself.

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Because once you get to learn about these

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studies of the brain, you get to learn about yourself.

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And Know Thy Partner.

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We created this website using language that is oriented very much toward the

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person who's a little curious about science but not a scientist.

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When you talk about people who know

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nothing about science but are very curious, that is...

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Hand raised. ...A comedian and a rapper, and we just

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are so excited to be talking to people like you.

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This is amazing. Yeah.

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Doctor Brown, how do you see the future of this study of romance and love?

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For the future, the kinds of questions that I would love to see answered....

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One big question out there still is, why

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do we fall in love with the person we fall in love with?

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What is it about that person that we find so attractive?

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Some people have tried this, but still a lot of work to be done.

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There's also, why do people stay in relationships that aren't so loving?

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And people do often stay in destructive

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relationships, and it would be good to know more about that.

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If we know more about the brain systems,

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then we might know more about where to focus therapeutically.

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But also something I'm especially

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interested in is how meditation is kind of like a long-term love

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relationship, and how we can become attached to the act of sitting and

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meditating, and how therapeutic that can be.

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I mean, given how much progress has been

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able to be made in the topic of romantic love since...

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I'm excited to hear, in a couple of years,

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how far you come with this study of meditation.

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That's so exciting! Yeah. And I love to sit down.

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[laughter]

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Perfect, amazing. Well, Dr.

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Lucy Brown, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us.

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This was super enlightening.

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It was really, really, really dope. T hank you.

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To know that it's actually good for you to be in love.

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Yes.

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Thank you.

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You both have great questions.

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Keep going. Thank you.

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Thank you so much. Dr.

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Lucy Brown. So much going on physically in the body

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when we are in love. What we feel is actually produced by biological processes.

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That's freaky. That is wild.

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Yeah.

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As you know, this is a science podcast, but really what each topic relates back to

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is people navigating relationships of all sorts.

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Right.

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So for our final segment, we are going to meet with an actual couple for this

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The L ucy and Tamar Story.

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Lucy and Tamar, welcome to So Curious! How are you guys?

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We're good. We're having a pretty cozy day.

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Hell, yeah.

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Just relaxing outside.

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Can you all just tell me a little bit where you're from, how old you are, where

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you met, whatever you're comfortable sharing.

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I'm from Hastings and Hudson, which is right outside the city.

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Tamar is from San Francisco.

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We met two years ago, probably. Yeah.

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I'm 22.

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She's 25.

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How did you meet, given that we have a West Coaster and a New Yorker?

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Well, Tamar goes to Wesleyan in Connecticut.

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Her dad lives in Riverdale, which is only about 20 minutes from Hastings.

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We originally met because she dated

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someone I went to high school with, so we were just aware of each other.

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And then over quarantine, I was just like, do you want to hang out?

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She's a musician.

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She played a show at my school.

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And, I mean, my impression of her was always, "wow, she's so cool.

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I really like her.

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She's probably out of my league."

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Well, our first solo hangout, we kind of knew nothing about each other, and we just

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spent the whole day talking and my impression was from that was that she's,

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like, a really thoughtful person, really good listener, similar interests.

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I mean, I also thought you were really cool. Oh my god, she's so cool.

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And then a big thing for both of us is we

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both have a really huge love for music, so it was important to share that.

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Yeah.

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And the first time we hung out, we actually ended up recording.

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Yeah, we recorded a song.

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No way. At like, four am.

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Wow. Like blackout junk.

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What has been the most rewarding part of

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the relationship and what has been the most challenging?

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I have a couple of answers to this one

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being, this is my first queer relationship.

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And for me, that's been super rewarding and different and kind of opened up

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possibilities that I didn't really think were possible in a partnership.

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I think for both of us, our first

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experience with a healthy relationship and realizing I can break out of these

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patterns from childhood that I witnessed, certain traumas, super rewarding.

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To just know I can rise above that and

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create something new for myself with this person who I love so much.

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On the other side of that is the

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challenges have definitely been all these toxic patterns that we have stored inside

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us that come out once we're in relationships.

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Sometimes we don't even realize they're

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there until we're in a deep partnership with someone.

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So that's definitely been a challenge.

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And the reason why we bring up our childhood so much, we had a very similar

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upbringing of neglectful parents that's taken a huge toll on both of us, and we're

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both actively trying to not replicate that individually.

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What do you love most about the other one?

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Tamar has a deep rejection of fakeness, and it pushes me to be more real, too.

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So I think her devotion to truly wanting me to be me, us having individual

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identities, and then coming together similarly.

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I feel like my answer is something that

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makes me a better person, which is I just feel like Lucy greets every experience in

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her life with, "how can I bring the most compassion into this?

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How can I be loving in this situation?" W hich I just find so inspiring.

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I feel like I've never met someone who is so much like that in my life.

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Really?

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What's the story that defines your relationship?

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Well, I kind of touched on how I was black -out drunk the first time we hung out,

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and I don't really drink alcohol ever, so that's kind of why this happened.

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But basically, we were just drinking a lot.

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We were making music, having so much fun.

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But then I ended up getting so sick,

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almost on the verge of alcohol poisoning. I was like...

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alcohol is not a part of our relationship, at all.

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It was just like, day one, hanging out.

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Yeah, it was like we were strangers, so

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we had never hung out, and then suddenly I have alcohol poisoning.

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And the way she was so non-judgmental, the way I felt so comfortable with her.

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She just completely just took care of me.

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And I remember thinking, why are you being so nice to me?

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Why do I feel so comfortable with you?

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I'm literally on the verge of dying right now.

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But you're just there I don't know.

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I'm curious, from your perspective, like, how that was for you?

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It was much more chiller.

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I was just like, oh, my God, you're throwing up.

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She was throwing up for probably like 5 hours.

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And I just went into go-action mode.

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"Everything's going to be fine. This will pass."

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Yeah, I guess.

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I feel like it's just that place of

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ultimate comfort and non-judgment between us.

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And that was your lowest low.

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Like, you were just so sick and ill in a

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house you've never been in, and a person you've never really hung out with.

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And we had a great time.

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Yeah. It was still...Like I left that

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hangout being like, "okay, that was amazing."

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It's hard to pick specific stories, though.

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Yeah. What's coming to mind for me, is just,

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there's something about us being a quarantine relationship that is specific

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to our personalities because we both love nature, we both love taking things slow.

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We love diving into a conversation.

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We love laying in bed and watching TV. Yes.

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And all of those activities take time.

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And all of those activities just require

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two people talking, which is exactly what Quarantine was.

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So all of my stories would be related to us just sitting outside talking.

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Lucy and Tamar, thank you guys so much.

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You're a really adorable couple. Honestly.

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Thank you for being here.

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Seriously! It's obnoxious!

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Thank you.

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Thank you so much to Lucy and Tamar and Dr.

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Brown for being on this episode.

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Next week we are hosting a roundtable

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discussion on medical health access, which is particularly relevant right now.

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"We are really interested in this problem

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of why people, particularly of different sexual orientations and different gender

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preferences, have such a difficult time accessing care."

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This and more on next week's episode.

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And don't forget to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen.

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Thank you so much for listening.

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I'm The Bul Bey and you can just call me Bey.

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Yeah, and I'm Kirstin Michelle Cills?

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I don't know if that's how my last name is said.

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You don't know how to say your own last name?

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You should work on it. All right.

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We tricked you. I'm Kirsten Michelle Cills.

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And I'm The Bul Bey.

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Over and out.

Disclaimer:

So Curious! Is presented by the Franklin Institute.

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Special thanks to Franklin Institute producers, Joy Montefusco and Dr.

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Jayatri Das.

Disclaimer:

This podcast is produced by Radio Kismet.

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Radio Kismet is Philadelphia's premiere podcast production studio.

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Head of operations is Christopher Plant.

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The managing producer is Emily Charish.

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The Producers is Liliana Green The lead

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audio engineer and editor is Christian Cedarland.

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The editors are Lauren DeLuca and Justin Berger.

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The science writer is Kira Vayette and

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