Anthropologist Helen Fisher is always a popular speaker – she appeared at TED two years ago, speaking about her research on the brain functions associated with love. Her talks alternate between MRI images and long quotes from romantic poetry.
She’s studied people who are happily in love, people who’ve been dumped recently and people who are still in love, twenty years into marriage – she puts them into functional MRI machines and studies their brain structure, trying to understand what parts of the brain are triggered by love.
She offers the story of a Mayan leader, who had temples built in his honor and that of his wife. On the solstice every year, his temple shadows hers at sunrise, and hers shadows his at sunset. “After 1300 years, these lovers still touch and kiss from their tomb.”
Love, she tells us, is dangerous. In college students, 95% report that they had dumped someone who really loved them. The same bnumber had been dumped by someone they really loved. “Most people don’t get out of love alive.” Love can be pain – she quotes a Kwakaiutal Indian poem told to a missionary: “Fire runs through my body with the pain of loving you, Pain runs through my body with the fire of loving you.” Emily Dickinson told us “Parting is all we need to know of hell.”
In her research on people in love, she’s seen activity in the VTA area of the brain, a center that produces dopamine. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system, part of the reptilian core which is associated with wanting, motivation, focus and craving. The high from it can be as powerful as cocaine – you literally
can’t stop thinking of that other human being.
She’s also put people who’ve been recently dumped into a functional MRI – “it’s hard to do – some of them are a real mess”. Their brain areas also show activity in this area associated with romantic love. It’s hard to give up on “life’s greatest prize – an inappropriate mating partner.” She says it’s easy to understand crimes of passion – these chemicals give us great energy, focus and motivation, including a willingness to take inappropriate risks.
This love drive, she tells us, is different from the sex drive. That drive simply wants us to spread our genes around, finding as many partners as possible. In love, we’re more selective. All animals are, she believes. Animals will reject partners as “too old, too young, too stupid.” In a box in a lab, one might mate with any partner, but in the wild, there’s some sort of attraction, even if it’s only seconds long.
Why do people fall in love with specific others? There are extensive studies demonstrating that we tend to marry people from similar backgrounds. But who within that set of people with similar socioeconomics? She’s now running an experiment on Chemistry.com, her dating website, which asks questions that try to determine the levels of four brain chemicals and see how they’re related to who you choose to date and marry.
She closes by talking about the ancient nature of love. Women’s intimacy, she tells us, is face to face, perhaps because women are nursing children, splitting attention between them and their friends. Men’s intimacy tends to be side by side, probably from looking at prey. “Love is deeply embedded in the brain.”