Sex, Love, and Attachment: An Interview with Dr. Helen Fisher

Biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher is a leading expert and the most referenced scholar on the science of love and attraction. She is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. In her position as chief scientific adviser at Match.com, her research has been applied to create both hormone-based and personality-based matching systems. After decades of studying the evolution and future of human sex, love, marriage, gender differences in the brain, and how our personality style determines whom we love and how we love, she is most recently looking at exciting new ways of how our personality tendencies relate to leadership and innovation.


Brain World: How did you become interested in the science of love?

Helen Fisher: I’ve always been interested in the evolution of social and sexual behavior.

People often ask me why I got into this field, and I don’t really have a sexy answer. I didn’t need to solve any big sex problems when I was a teenager or anything like that. But I am an identical twin. And when I was in graduate school, a lot of academics were absolutely convinced that the mind was an empty slate on which environment inscribed personality. As a twin, I knew that that was just not true. I mean, I could see the way my twin sister laughed and smiled, and moved her body … We thought about the same kinds of things, we were both risk-takers, we were both “happy” children. I could see that our temperament was the same, and that these traits must have evolved together.

Environment and upbringing always plays a role of course, but so does your inheritance. In fact, scientists now believe that 40 to 60 percent of who you are comes out of your genetics, your biology. So that got me started in thinking, when I had to write my dissertation, that if there is any part of human behavior, any part at all, that might have a genetic basis, it would be our reproductive patterns. It would be our sex and romance and attachment patterns, because as Darwin said, if you have four children and I have no children, you live on and I die out. So the game of love matters. And those who do not play it properly do not pass on their DNA onto tomorrow.

That’s what really got me into the topic of love.

So I went on to write my Ph.D. on why the human female lost her period of heat (or estrus) and can copulate all month long. All other animals rarely copulate outside of their estrus period whereas a woman can have sex any time she wants to. I felt that probably evolved millions of years ago, along with the evolution for the drive for pair bonding to raise our babies as a team.

BW: What is love?

HF: It’s basically a system for mating and reproduction.

We’ve evolved three distinctive brain systems, which evolved for different reasons. One is the sex drive. Second are feelings of intense romantic love. The third are feelings of deep attachment.

The sex drive evolved to get you out there looking for a whole range of partners. Romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual at a time. And attachment evolved to get you to stick with this person at least long enough to raise a single child together.

Romantic love has a very specific set of characteristics. The first thing that happens when you fall madly in love is the person takes on “special meaning.” Everything about that person becomes special, the street they live on, their car, the music they like, the books they read. And you focus on it. So it implies real focused attention, intense energy. You could walk all night and talk till dawn, you feel extreme elation when things are going well, mood swings and terrible despair when they don’t show up or call you by the wrong name. You also have all kinds of bodily reactions, such as weak knees, butterflies in the stomach, dry mouth.

In essence, the three main reactions are obsessive thinking about this person, craving for emotional union — you want the person to call you, to write you, to say “I love you” — and intensive motivation to win this person.

Last but not least, it’s very difficult to control. It’s like a fever. It comes and goes quite independently from the will.

BW: What goes on in the brain?

HF: When I began to look at all these main traits of romantic love, I hypothesized that the dopamine system would definitely be involved in feelings of romantic love because it is usually related to obsessive thinking, focus, craving, motivation, high energy. That’s almost all produced by the dopamine system in the brain. So I assumed I would find activity in the dopamine systems of the brain.

When we put people who are madly in love in the brain scanner, sure enough that’s exactly what we found: activity in the basic factory that makes dopamine, way inside, in the base of the brain, and sends it to the rest of brain regions. And it lies pretty close to the hypothalamus, which regulates thirst and hunger. I mean, thirst and hunger keep you alive, and romantic love allows you to send your DNA into tomorrow. So in the end, love is a survival mechanism. That’s why we call it, a “survival mechanism.”

I had thought that there could be more activity in the cortex, where you think about somebody, or in the limbic system, with all the emotions. And indeed there is activity in those parts of the brain, but different people would have a different kind of activity in these parts, whereas every person showed activity in this little factory of dopamine at the base of the brain.

BW: So, is the only reason for love mating and reproduction?

HF: There are many other purposes. When you are madly in love with someone, you’re building your dopamine system in the brain, and that gives you energy, and optimism, and focus, and motivation. And those are very good traits. Even in old age, when you’re no longer thinking of reproducing, you keep driving up the dopamine system. And if you’re having sex with them, even if you don’t reproduce, it’s healthy for your skin, your organs, your mood. So a good romance, at any age, one that doesn’t cause stress and sadness, but joy, security, trust, is good for the body and the mind, and what’s good for you is going to be good for the group. Dopamine is also related to creativity. People are going to be more willing to risk, and to explore — things that are not only good for the couple, but also for the group or for the society.


BW: What is the choosing process? How do we choose the person we fall in love with?

HF: Oddly enough, the process of selecting a mate is even more complicated than how the brain works to create attraction. It’s quite amazing. There are many things that go into mate choice. We tend to fall in love with someone with the same socioeconomic background, same general level of intelligence, same general level of good looks, same religious and social values, same degree of education, etc. Your childhood always plays a role. As you grow up, you build what I call a “love map,” you like your father’s sense of humor, your mother’s athletic talent, you don’t like weeding the garden, you like skiing, you don’t like math, and so on. You build an unconscious map of what you’re looking for in a partner. But that’s just part of the story. Say you walk into a room and everybody has the same social goals, same background, and similar degree of intelligence, good looks, or education. You don’t fall in love with all of them! So that got me into thinking, well, maybe we are naturally drawn to some people more than others. In other words, people would say, “we have chemistry” or “we don’t have chemistry.” What is really meant by this?


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