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Psychology, Psychiatry & Mental Health

Anthropologist and love expert Helen Fisher on the mysteries of love

An interview with the Chief Scientific Advisor for Match.com – and the brains behind the Chemistry.com personality test

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher recently told a story about how her research took her to New Guinea, where she spoke with a native who had five wives.

I asked him how many wives would he like to have? I was wondering if he would say 10 wives or 100 wives. After a very long pause he answered none. He told me that it was not easy being married to so many women as they didn't always get along. It taught me a lesson. When it comes to love, more is not always the answer.

Helen Fisher, PhD, with the fMRI scanner she uses for her brain scanning experiments (Photo by Christian Frei)Dr. Fisher thinks about love a lot. Whether speaking at TED or South by Southwest, the World Economic Forum (Davos), the World Science Festival (where she told the story above) or before a group of matchmakers in New York City, she is asked to give her views on why we fall in love, stay in love and what love does to us. In her role as chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site Match.com, she developed a personality test for Chemistry.com, which has been taken by 13 million people in 40 countries.  

Dr. Fisher is the author of five books about the evolution, expression and the chemistry of love. Her books Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love and Why We Love have been bestsellers. She is currently updating her second book, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray.

Dr. Justin R. Garcia, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and assistant research scientist at The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University said Fisher's work has changed the way scientists look at love. When asked of her contributions, he wrote:

For over three decades, Dr. Helen Fisher has been instrumental in shaping what we know about the evolutionary origins of human behavior and romantic love. A prominent public intellectual and active interdisciplinary scholar, her work has changed the way social and behavioral scientists think about the nuclear family and the reasons why humans form pair-bond relationships. By combining a variety of methodologies, her research on romantic relationships has continued to challenge conventional wisdom and shed new light on the intense human experiences of moving in, and out, of love.

Recently, I sat down with Dr. Fisher to ask her about her research and her thoughts on love and why she is optimistic about the future of marriage:[divider]

You have said that romantic love is an addiction. Can you explain this?

Romantic love is not only a very strong addiction but a universal craving. Just about 100 percent of all humans experience romantic love at some point. That is not true of other addictions, such as gambling or substance abuse. Romantic love, at its best, is a wonderful addiction. At its worst it leads to depression, suicide and even murder. In fact, our brain scanning studies (using fMRI) show that when a person is in love, they exhibit activity in the same brain regions that become active when one is addicted to cocaine and other drugs, including the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), two primitive parts of the brain involved in the production and distribution of dopamine. These infatuated lovers also show activity in the caudate nucleus, an ancient brain region that helps to integrate our thought and feelings.

Dopamine is key. This neurotransmitter is the central component of the brain's reward system—the brain system that gives the lover focus, energy, motivation, and craving for the beloved. I can't think of any bigger reward than falling in love.

Why does being in love turn us into drug addicts?

Lovers and drug addicts show similar behavior. They both want more. In the case of romantic love, you can't wait to see the person again. You get upset if they don't call you, known as separation anxiety. And when things are going badly, you often lose sleep and don't eat or over eat. People who are in love crave their drug, the beloved; they distort reality, experience personality changes, do dangerous and sometimes inappropriate things and obsessively think about their sweetheart — the center of their world. And when the lover can't win the beloved, or gets dumped, they experience withdrawals and relapse. For drug addicts, drugs are the center of their lives. The same is true for those in love. When it's good, there is nothing better. When it's not good, there is nothing worse. The song "Can't Get You Out of My Head" tells the whole story.

How many people have you done brain scans on?

My brain scanning partners, Lucy Brown, Art Aron and Bianca Acevedo, and I have now scanned over 75 people who have fallen in love. In our first major study, however, we scanned 17 young men and women who had just fallen madly and happily in love. In our second major study, we scanned 15 rejected lovers. And in our third, we scanned people who were in love long-term. These men and women had been married an average of 21years — yet they showed some of the same basic activity in the reward system that we had found in those who were newly in love — with one exception. Those who had just fallen in love showed activity in a brain region associated with anxiety; while in our long term lovers, this anxiety was replaced with activity in brain regions linked with calm and pain suppression.

You say that romantic love is stronger than our sex drive. It seems hard to believe.

Romantic love affects us on a more personal level. If you are sexually attracted to a person you met at a party and are rejected, you don't tend to slip into a clinical depression or kill yourself. But if you are rejected by your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, it has a huge impact. As we have seen through brain scannings, one of the brain regions involved in romantic love lies right next to brain regions that help to orchestrate thirst and hunger. Romantic love is a drive, a survival mechanism; it evolved to enable our forebears to focus their mating effort on a particular individual and begin the mating process. The sex drive activates nearby primitive regions, but it doesn't seem to contribute to as many worldwide crimes of passion. Romantic love is an important part of us.

How did you get involved with Match.com. What do you think about online dating? 

Match.com called me in 2005. We then met in New York, and during our day-long meeting, they asked me two questions: Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another? And whether I would consider starting a new dating site with them, what eventually became Chemistry.com.

I think online dating is terrific. It's safe, cheap and easy. And it really can help people in our modern world, where divorce is common and millions get thrust back into the dating scene in their 30s, 40s, and on up. Many of these men and women already know everyone at work and in their social circles. Their parents can't introduce them to potential partners either. So dating services fill a vital role.

But there is a large misconception about online dating. It isn't actually online dating, it is online introducing. And once you meet a potential partner for a coffee or a drink, your ancient human brain takes charge and you court by its prehistoric rules. A lot of people think that online dating will change the way we love. It won't. Email and computers won't change the way we court.

Your Chemistry.com test divides people into four distinct personalities. What are they?

I was interested to explore the role of temperament in personality. So I looked through the biological literature to see if I could find any personality traits linked with any biological system. As it turned out, I found four constellations of personality traits linked with four broad biological systems: the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. So I made a questionnaire to measure the degree to which an individual expressed the traits with each of these systems. Very briefly:

  • The traits linked with the dopamine system include risk taking, sensation seeking, curiosity, creativity, unpredictability and high energy. So I dubbed those who scored high on these dopamine related traits the Explorer.
  • The traits linked with the serotonin system include social norm conformity, or being traditional, caution or harm avoidance, following the rules, respecting authority, calm and religiosity. I dubbed those who scored highest on this scale, the Builder.
  • The traits linked with the testosterone system include being good at "rule based system" such as engineering, mechanics, computers, and music. These people (largely men in all the cultures that I analyzed) also tend to be analytical, logical, direct, decisive, tough-minded, skeptical and competitive. I called this type the Director.
  • Last, those traits linked with the estrogen system include seeing the big picture (what I call web thinking), as well as verbal and social skills, being empathetic, intuitive and trusting, and being emotionally expressive. I dubbed this type the Negotiator.

But no one expresses just one set of these traits; we all express all of them, but each of us expresses some more than others.

My questionnaire has now been taken by over 13 million people in 40 countries, and I and my colleagues have now done two brain scanning experiments (fMRI) to prove that those who score high on specific questionnaire scales actually are activating the appropriate brain regions or systems. Our results were published in PLOS One in November 2013.

In your four personality types, which ones get along? And which ones don't?

We seem to have evolved some chemical patterns to whom we love. I found that Explorers are initially most attracted to other Explorers (curious people want curious partners), while Builders go for other Builders (traditional seeks traditional). But Directors, those predominantly expressive of traits linked with testosterone, tend to be attracted to their opposite (Negotiators) and vice versa.

Which one are You?

I am definitively an Explorer, and secondarily a Negotiator.  

Are you optimistic about the future of marriage?

I believe that today, people are getting married for the right reasons: to make themselves happier. For thousands of years, our farming forebearers were obliged to marry to please their extended family, their community and God. Today we are turning inward, seeking self-fulfillment; we are marrying to please ourselves. And they are taking their time to look for the right person. Indeed some 84 percent will marry by middle age. Moreover, today we are seeing the economic rise of women; and everywhere in the world where women work outside the home and bring home money, both sexes are less dependent on one another so that bad marriages can end. And in fact, we are seeing more happy marriages.

I do an annual study with Match.com called Singles in America. We don't poll the Match members; it's a representative sample of the American population. We now have data on 20,000 men and women. And in 2012 we also studied married folks. So I asked these spouses the question: "Would you remarry the person you are currently married to." 81 percent said yes. I think we will see more happy marriages because bad marriages can end. With less infant mortality and a host of medical innovations, more people will also have a long healthy middle age — with more time to find and keep love.

Have your various brain scanning projects told you anything about happiness?

Yes, we found specific patterns of brain activity among those who were in love long-term. Foremost, we found activity in a small factor in the frontal cortex that enables one to overlook the negative and accentuate the positive. Psychologists call this "positive illusions." We also found activity in the mirror neurons linked with empathy, and with several brain regions associated with the ability to control your own emotions. The more we come to know about the brain, I believe, the more we will be able to make happy long-term partnerships.

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Elsevier Connect Contributor

David LevineDavid Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American. the Los Angeles Times, More magazine, and Good Housekeeping, and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.



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