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Why We Love: Insights From Dr. Helen Fisher [Be Inkandescent Magazine, February 2011]

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine
February 2011

What is love? Why do we pick the people we choose to love, hire, befriend? Is there really love at first sight? How did love evolve?

To answer these eternal questions, Rutgers University professor and anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher, has traveled from the the desert outback of East Africa, to Tokyo, to Iran, and back to her home in New York City, to determine if one culture perceives love differently than another. She then used fMRI technology to look inside the brains of 50 men and women who said they were madly in love.

Her perspectives on love, sexuality, women, and gender differences have been featured in Time magazine, National Public Radio, NBC, the BBC, and CNN. She has also authored five books: “The Sex Contract,” “Anatomy of Love,” “The First Sex,” “Why We Love,” and her 2010 book, “Why Him? Why Her?” Fisher is currently working on a new title about why we choose one partner over another.

The nature and chemistry of romantic love

In her book, Why We Love, Fisher explains that everywhere in the world, people fall into romantic love. “Like the craving for food and water and the maternal instinct, passion is a fundamental human drive,” she says. “Courting and winning a particular mate is one of our most profound urges.”

Fisher took the question to another level in her next book, Why Him? Why Her?, and analyzed how people can find real love by understanding their personality type. The research for that book became the basis of the Chemistry.com questionnaire that matches people with compatible brain chemistry.

We begin our discussion with Fisher by talking about that eternal question: Why do humans love?

Fisher says there are three basic mating drives that inhabit our brains:

Lust: The craving for sexual gratification emerged to motivate our ancestors to seek sexual union with almost any partner.

Romantic Love: The elation and obsession of being in love with a mate, which enabled the ancients to focus their attention on a single individual at a time, and to conserve time and energy.

Attachment: The sense of peace and security one feels toward a long-time mate motivated our ancestors to stay together long enough to rear their young.

Although Fisher admits that the magic of love cannot be underestimated, she is convinced that the species’ need to procreate is the primary motivator behind all of these mating drives.

“If you have four children, and I have no children, your genes are going to live on and mine are going to die off,” she says. “ So we all know deep down inside that our sexual behavior is going to have important consequences.”

The science of mating

But what, exactly, is going on in the brain when we experience those feelings of lust, romantic love, and attachment?

Fisher had initially hypothesized that romantic love was associated with elevated levels of dopamine and / or norepinephrine, two key neurotransmitters. After interviewing and using high-tech tools to test dozens of men and women, her theory was confirmed when the fMRI showed activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a brain region that is part of the reward system.

“Called the reptilian brain, or R-complex, it evolved long before mammals proliferated some 65 million years ago,” says Fisher, noting, “This result was what I was looking for.”

The reason, she explains, is that the nerve cells in this portion of the brain have tentacle-like axons that distribute dopamine to many brain regions, including the caudate nucleus. “This sprinkler system sends dopamine to many brain parts, it produces focused attention, as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation, even mania—the core feelings of romantic love,” she says.

As a result, Fisher was able to observe chemical changes in the brain as her subjects looked at the photos of their loved ones, giving her an insider’s view of some of the chemical underpinnings of love.

Why Him? Why Her?

After these findings were published, Fisher was asked by Match.com to become the scientific advisor to a new sister site, Chemistry.com. Using her fMRI research, she crafted the “Chemistry Profile,” a personality assessment and matching system, which includes dozens of questions ranging from “is your sock drawer ready for public inspection?” to “Are your friends the social crowd, intellectuals, adventurers, or activists?”

Other questions ask the test taker to identify a mate’s ideal body type, fitness regime, favorite Friday night date, and religious preferences. While the questions may seem straightforward, the answers identify which chemicals are most dominant in the brain: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and / or estrogen.

Dopamine-Driven Explorers: People with naturally high levels of dopamine tend to be risk-takers, novelty-seekers, artistic, creative, and curious. Fisher found that 26 percent of the 40,000 men and women she polled fell into this category.

Serotonin-Driven Builders: Those with a lot of serotonin tend to gravitate toward the traditional. They are calm, social, popular, loyal, conscientious, and tend to be organized and enjoy rules. Often, they are pillars of society and good in business. About 29 percent of the population polled fell into this category.

Testosterone-Driven Directors: This group is direct, and skilled at understanding rule-based systems. They tend to be highly analytical, logical, emotionally contained, bold and ambitious. They account for about 16 percent of the population.

Estrogen-Driven Negotiators: Those with high amounts of estrogen have good people skills, an active imagination, are altruistic, idealistic, and nurturing. They tend to see the “big picture,” but are not very detail-oriented. Approximately 25 percent of the people polled fit into this category.

“Although everyone has a combination of chemicals, one or two tend to dominate,” Fisher explains. “Consistently, though, dopamine-driven Explorers go for each other, as do serotonin-driven Builders. And testosterone-driven Directors and estrogen-driven Negotiators are happiest when they mate [each other].”

The reason, Fisher says, goes back to our basic drive to survive and propagate the species. “If you are good at seeing the big picture, as Negotiators are, you need someone who is analytical and detail-oriented to help you survive so you look for a Director. Similarly, if you are a traditionalist who is calm and really likes rules—as the serotonin-driven Builders are—you’ll want to mate with someone who looks at the world in the same logical, rule-based way you do.”

The future of love

Fisher’s research leads her to a few forecasts about the future of love and relationships.

“Since women started returning to the workforce a few decades ago, the balance of power between the sexes has shifted,” she notes, explaining that for centuries in hunting and gathering societies, women were on an equal footing with men, going out to gather the evening meal and being equally responsible for the survival of the family and community.

“But with the invention of farming tools that required physical strength, women were relegated to seemingly secondary chores of keeping house and having children. Arranged marriages dominated, and mating became more of an economic and sometimes political agreement between families.”

Fisher expects this shift in male-female roles to gain strength. As more women graduate from college—not to mention earn almost as many PhDs as often as men—their economic and political power will only continue to grow, and Fisher expects women to return to the place of power they held before the plow was invented.

“Men are now being pressured to please a woman—or she won’t have them back,” Fisher insists. “Going forward, men are definitely going to have to work a little harder to get and keep a mate.”

Fisher also believes that the pursuit of romantic love later in life will increase.

As more baby boomers hit 50—and realize they could live another 40-50 years—many will be looking around for someone new to “light their fire,” she forecasts. “Romantic love is deeply threaded into our human spirit. If we don’t have that in our lives, we feel like we are missing something. And we are.”

Do you think it’s important to trust your instincts? If you are nodding yes, Dr. Fisher explains why you are right — most of the time. Learn more in her Tips for Entrepreneurs. you think it’s important to trust your instincts?* If you are nodding yes, Dr. Fisher explains why you are right — most of the time. Learn more in her Tips for Entrepreneurs.


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• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.