The way we love. The why we love. Dr Helen Fisher.

… the same brain region that becomes active when you crave heroin, or cocaine, or alcohol, or nicotine, or food, or gambling also becomes active when you are madly in love.

Dr Helen Fisher during her TED Talk Why We Love, Why We Cheat”, which currently has more than 4,2 million views.

Dr Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist, a Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Internet dating site She has conducted extensive research and written six books on the evolution and future of human sex, love, marriage, gender differences in the brain and how your personality style shapes who you are and who you love. Dr Fisher is currently using her knowledge of brain chemistry to discuss the neuroscience of business leadership and innovation.

Dr Fisher, first off, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s dive straight into the deep water – what is love and why do people need love?
First of all, I think love means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But as we’ve evolved we have developed three different systems for mating and reproduction – sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love and feelings of deep attachment to a partner. In a really good, strong love relationship, you feel all three – you still have a real sexual interest in your partner, you feel romantic at times for your partner and you feel a deep sense of attachment to them.

Shall we take a closer look at romantic love?
So, over the last 12-14 years I have looked at data of what romantic love is and here are the main characteristics of it: the first thing that happens when you fall madly in love is that someone takes a special meaning. Everything about them becomes special – the street they live on is special, their car is different from any other car in the parking lot, the music that they like etc. So, the person that you like becomes special. Along with that, you feel an incredible energy, you can walk all night and talk till dawn with the person. And when things are not going well, you get mood swings and terrible despair when you don’t hear from that person. Also, you get bodily reaction in the beginning – you have a dry mouth and butterflies in your stomach, and weak knees when you are with them and being very self-conscious; you experience separation anxiety – you don’t like to be apart, you like to be together. Another characteristic is real sexual possessiveness: if you are casually sleeping with somebody, you don’t care if they are going out with other people, but if you are in love you become sexually possessive. So, to draw the line, the main three characteristics of romantic love are first,

craving for emotional union.

Yes, you’d like to sleep with them, you’d like to have sex with them, but what you really want them to do is to call, to write, to invite you out and to say that they love you. That is one. Also,

obsessive thinking.

When you are in love with someone, you can’t stop thinking about them. You wake up in the morning thinking about them, you go to sleep thinking about them, you think about them constantly.

And last, but not least,

highly motivated to win them.

What people would do, when in love, in order to win somebody, is quite remarkable.

The main region where we find activity when we look in the brain, is in the so called ventral tegmental area - a little sector right near the base of the brain. Photo:
The main region where we find activity when we look in the brain is in the so-called ventral tegmental area – a little sector right near the base of the brain. Photo:

How powerful are feelings of romantic love?
It is very difficult to control feelings of romantic love and that is because love is a basic drive. It is a dopamine brain pathway, a brain circuit that is way below the cortex at which you do your thinking, it’s way below the limbic system where the central organisation of the emotions happens – it’s in the very base of the brain and actually, the main region where we find activity when we look in the brain is in the so-called ventral tegmental area. That is a little sector right near the base of the brain and right near it are the factors that orchestrate hunger and thirst. So basically, romantic love is a drive, it’s a basic mating drive. It evolved millions of years ago to focus your mating energy on a particular individual to start the mating process.

Is there an over-crossing between addictions and love?
Yes. We have been able to put over a hundred people into the brain scanner. The first group were 70 people who were happily in love, the second group were 15 people that have been rejected in love and the third group were people who were in love long-term, people who were in long marriages and in love, not just loving. In the people who were rejected in love and in those who had just fallen happily in love, we found activity in the brain region called the nucleus accumbens and that particular brain factory becomes activated when any of the addictions are in place. So, it’s the same brain region that becomes active when you crave heroin, or cocaine or alcohol, or nicotine, or food, or gambling also becomes active when you are madly in love. So, I wrote a huge academic paper on this in which I ended up saying that we really have to revise what our concept of an addiction is because a great many people believe that addictions are always pathological, which generally is.

How to cure a broken heart?
You have to treat it as an addiction – get rid of the cards and letters, don’t write, don’t call, don’t show up, don’t ask about the person. Try to move on in a different path, see old friends, make new friends, keep moving, get some exercise – anything that distracts you. A lot of people feel so guilty when they break up with somebody that they are just willing to be their good friends. Don’t be friends with this person for a while! You have to get over the addiction. So treat a broken heart as an addiction.

But I think romantic love is a natural addiction – when it’s going well and you are falling in love with the right person it can be a very good addiction, rather than a bad addiction. It can certainly be a bad addiction too – when you are rejected in love, we find activity in the brain regions linked with physical pain along with the anxiety that goes along with physical pain, three brain regions associated with intense craving, a brain region linked with romantic love, a brain regions linked to deep feeling of attachment, but most also a brain region linked with addiction. So, romantic love is an addiction, it’s a natural addiction, it’s a drive, it evolved millions of years ago it will be with us if we survive as species millions of years from now, and it evolved as an addiction, a part of an addiction when things are going well and a really negative addiction when things are going poorly.

How do we choose our partners? People don’t fall in love with everybody around them, we’d go for a specific person.
I wrote a whole book on the topic – Why him, why herNo, we don’t fall in love with everybody, that is for sure. There are a lot of cultural reasons why you fall for one person rather than another. For example, people tend to fall in love with somebody from the same socio-economic background, same general level of intelligence, same general level of good looks, same religious and social values, same economic goals, same reproductive goals. So that’s pretty well established that you fall in love with someone from the same background and the same goals. But, I wanted to know whether basic biology pulls you towards some people rather than others. You know – people say that we have or we don’t have chemistry, and I wondered what that meant, I wanted to know are we biologically pulled to one another, not just culturally pulled. I went through all the academic literature looking for any trait at all linked with any brain system and as it turns out the constellation of personality traits linked with four brain systems – dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and oestrogen systems. So I made a questionnaire that is now been taken by over 14 million people in 40 countries to uncover the following:

People who are very expressive of the dopamine system in the brain, tend to be novelty seeking, risk taking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic and mentally flexible. There people are drawn to people like themselves. They tend to want to go out with someone who is equally curious, creative, spontaneous, mentally flexible as they are.

People very expressive of the serotonin system tend to be traditional, confessional, follow the rules, respect authority, think concretely, tend to be more religious, and they tend to also be attracted to people like themselves – traditional people want traditional people, just the way curious and creative people want curious and creative people.

In those two cases, the similarity of personalities attract. In the other two cases, opposites attract.

People, very expressive of the testosterone system, tend to be very attracted to those expressive of the oestrogen system and vice versa.

Hilary and Bill Clinton are a good example.

Donald is believed to be of high testosterone.
Donald is believed to be of high testosterone.

People with high testosterone, there’s many more men than women, as is Donald Trump, these people tend to be analytical, direct decisive, tough-minded, sceptical and good at what scientists call root base systems – everything from computers, maths to engineering, to architecture to music. They are techies.

People who are very expressive of the oestrogen system tend to be intuitive, imaginative, have good people skills, good verbal skills, are empathetic, trusting, emotionally expressive and contextual holistic long term thinkers.

We are all, however, a combination of the all four brain systems. I, for example, am very high on the dopamine scale and very high on the oestrogen scale. So I tend to go out with men who are high on the dopamine scale like me, and high on the testosterone scale, which is not like me. So we are all a combination of all of these.

What I tried to add to the literature is – sure, we go out with someone who is from the same background, the same level of intelligence and the same level of good looks etc. , but you can walk in a full room and everybody is from your background, and general level of good looks and intelligence and you don’t fall in love with all of them. This is where personality comes in.

Personality types are obviously playing a grand role in the way we choose our partners. However, we are nowadays prone to use one primarily source of finding people to date – the dating websites and applications. Are they changing anything in the way we mate?
Everybody is actually positive that it is changing everything, and I don’t think it is changing very much at all. When you look back American history of technology, there are many other times when technology has a larger impact. For example, when the automobile became widely available in the late 1940s in America and Europe, that in fact was a rolling bedroom. And a rolling bed is much more a traumatic dating mechanism than swiping left or right on Tinder or just meeting somebody on the Internet. And then, of course, the birth control pill came in wide use and that had a huge impact on dating.

But there is no question about it, that the Internet is changing how we court. It is not changing how we love, but it is changing how we meet somebody, how we interact, how we get introduced to each other, how we meet. Once you actually meet the person, after you found each other on the Internet, when you meet them at a park bench, in a bar, in a coffee house, or wherever, when you actually sit down and talk to them – then we smile the way we always have, we cock our heads the way we always have, we listen to the way we always have, we parade ourselves the way we always have. Bottom line is, the brain’s need for romantic love is not going to change. Like the fear system, or the anger system hasn’t changed in million years, this also isn’t going to change, no matter whether you met somebody in a bar, through your grandparents, at church or on the Internet.

Coming from the dating websites topic and can’t not ask you – are humans monogamous by nature?
Monogamy does not mean fidelity. ‘Monos’ means one and ‘gamos’ means marriage – one marriage. As oppose to polygamy, where ‘poly’ means many – many marriages. So bottom line, we are a species which pairs up when we are young. 97% of mammals do not pair up until they have babies. Yes, we form a pair bond, we are monogamous species. But we are also adulterous. I have looked at adultery in cultures. You’d find it everywhere, even in placed where you would get your head chopped off for it, people still tend to be adulterous. We are species that have, what I call, a dual human reproductive strategy. A tremendous drive to fall in love, form a pair bond and raise out children as a team of two but a good percentage of us are also adulterous on the side. So this is a double reproductive strategy. And I think this is going to be one of the big issues of this century – how do we merit to these two ways of being. Some people are just trying to be very faithful all their lives, other people will be faithful when they are married but have series of marriages and sleep around when they are not married, other people are going to have a marriage they don’t want to leave but sleep around on the side. Bottom line is, in past history, a girl was really stuck at home and if she left the partnership or was caught with adultery, she would lose her children and everything else. We now live in a world where women work outside the home and both sexes can walk out of a bad relationship in order to make a better one. Because of that, I believe that we are going to see less and less adultery – simply because people can leave bad relationships and make better once instead of being stuck in a relationship till death do us part. So, we are now at a time in human evolution when we can really make the kind of relationship we want to make.

Let’s debunk a myth then – is the 7th year itch a fact or fiction?
I wrote a whole book on that called Anatomy of Love.  Basically, it’s the 4th year itch. I look at the demographic yearbook of the United Nations for 80 societies between 1947 and 2012. As it turns out, if you are going for divorce, around the world, you tend to divorce during and around the 4th year of marriage. And I begin to release that the natural period of birth spacing among human beings is exactly 4 years. We are hunting together in societies and have our children about every four years. So my hypothesis was that millions of years ago we came down out of the trees and began to stand up on two feet instead of four. Females began to have to carry their babies on their arms, instead of their backs, as chimpanzees carry their babies on their backs and that makes it easy for the mother to feed herself and protect herself, and live in the trees. So, when we began to stand on two feet at least 4 million years ago our females ancestor had to carry their babies in their arms, instead of on their backs. So my hypothesis about the 4-year spacing is that we evolved the drive to pair up and make a team at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy, at least to the age of 4. Now, a child that age was not able to take care of itself even a million years ago, but at that age, it could join a multi-age play group and be taken care after by a 7-year-old, and a 10-year-old, and a 15-year-old and aunts and uncles etc. So the pair bond could break up if it was a bad marriage so to speak and both partners could find somebody new and have a second child in a second relation.

So, I think we have evolved a tremendous drive to form up a pair and stay together at least long enough to raise a single child to infancy (about 4 years). A lot of people have several children and stay together much longer than that but I think this 4th-year itch and this restlessness in a relationship come originally from a need to stay together only for a period of time. You see this in Bulgaria, you see it all over the world.

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