Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring biological anthropologist and love expert Dr Helen Fisher of the Rutgers University Anthropology Department Center for Human Evolutionary Studies and the Kinsey Institute. The title of the lecture was Lust Romance Attraction: The Drive to Love and Who We Choose.
Dr Fisher began her lecture by relating a conversation she had with an elder of a tribe of Papuan Highlanders who had three wives. She asked this individual how many wives he wanted and he answered, "None." While many societies are polygamous, only about 5-10% of individuals want many wives- most human adults form pair bonds. Dr Fisher recalled a statement attributed to Samuel Johnson, "Marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."
Dr Fisher was asked by the CEO of dating site Match.com, "Why do you fall in love with one person and not another?" Why are we drawn to each other? Is it chemistry, or more a matter of culture? For some people, love for one person can be overwhelming- Dr Fisher cited the Mayan ruler Jasaw Chan K'awiil I, who ruled over Tikal from 682-734. When Kalajuun Une' Mo', his young wife, died Jasaw Chan K'awiil I built a pyramid in her honor opposite his own pyramid tomb. The pyramids are aligned to the spring equinox so that 1,300 years after their construction, the love of Jasaw Chan K'awiil I and Kalajuun Une' Mo' touches.
Love is a powerful mind system, likened by the ancient Greeks to madness from the gods. Love, which is found in every society, has been the subject of countless myths, stories, operas, songs. Men tend to be more romantic than women... they usually want to move in together faster, and they are more likely to harm or kill others because of romantic passion. Love is a brain system like fear, disgust, or surprise. Dr Fisher likened love to a sleeping cat- it can wake up at any time. The brain system involved in love is the same for LGBTQ people as it is for heterosexual people.
Romantic love involves three neurotransmitter systems in the brain: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dr Fisher likened romantic love to an "intolerable neural itch". The sex drive is largely produced by testosterone. Attachment is driven by oxytocin and vasopressin.
Testosterone triggers the sex drive and stimulation of the genitals triggers the dopamine system. Dr Fisher joked that casual sex is not really casual, it can bring about feelings of attachment. The various systems aren't always working in concert- Dr Fisher likened their interaction to a 'committee meeting going on in your head'. Because of the varied interactions of these systems, humans are well built for pair bonding and adultery. We can leave bad relationships and hopefully form new ones. In seeking love and attachment, an individual has to balance intimacy versus autonomy.
The topic then shifted to the topic of romantic love and the traits associated with it. Oddly enough, as I'm typing this post up, this song started playing on the radi-adi-o (no joke). Romantic love involves attaching a special meaning to an individual, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "Love consists in overestimating the difference between one woman and another." In a romantic relationship, one tends to play up the qualities one likes in a partner while downplaying what one doesn't like. Romantic love involves intense energy- swings from euphoria to despair. Individuals feeling romantic love feel wobbly knees and butterflies in their stomachs. They wait for their lovers to call or otherwise contact them and generally feel emotional dependency. They engage in obsessive thinking- 'someone is camping in their head'. There is a craving for attention and for an emotional union. All of these feelings are connected to the dopamine system.
An MRI of an individual viewing a photograph of their loved one reveals that there is heightened activity in their ventral tegmental area, the brain's dopamine factory. The brain stem regulates the most primitive drives, thirst and hunger, and the hypothalamus regulates sex drive. Love is not really an emotion, love is a drive- the drive to win a mating partner. There are facial expressions that express anger or surprise, but none that express hunger or love. The love drive is more important than the sex drive. Romantic love can be likened to an addiction, it uses the same pathways in the brain.
Dr Fisher then had a short aside about rejection- if you've been rejected, can you let go? In one survey, 90% of college aged respondents indicated that they had both suffered rejection and had rejected others. Again, the ventral tegmental area is involved in the perception of rejection, which is similar to the craving suffered by an addict. Dr Fisher quipped, "Can Advil help?"
All animals have attraction systems but many animal species don't form pair bonds. Most birds form pair bonds but many mammals, including most primates, don't. Apes tend to be self-sufficient, but the hominids who took to the ground needed help from each other, with males taking on a larger parental role. At some stage in human evolution, a monogamy threshold was reached, which favored the evolution of brain circuitry for romantic love and attachment. While evolution of this new brain circuitry largely overturned promiscuity, it was not absolute by any means.
Dr Fisher then addressed the topic of attraction... Why him? Why her? Timing and proximity are big factors, as are socioeconomic and ethnic factors. Intelligence and looks and shared experiences are important, as are shared social values. Attraction involves the interaction of nature and nurture. Dr Fisher then digressed to talk about the differences in intimacy between men and women- women prefer face to face interaction while men prefer to sit side by side. While experiencing intimacy, one's L-dopa levels go up.
Most of the brain's systems are devoted to keeping the eyes seeing and the heart breathing. The four major brain systems devoted to more conscious behavior are the dopamine system, the serotonin system, the estrogen system, and the testosterone system. Dr Fisher detailed a study in which participants were asked to take a 56 page personality test in order to determine patters of nature, patterns of culture, patterns of personality, and patterns of mate choice. According to their answers, subjects were grouped into four categories, corresponding to the four behavioral brain systems.
Individuals who had high dopamine levels could be characterized as 'explorers'- they are curious, adventurous. They tend to make the most money and to lose the most money. They tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic, spontaneously generous, and creative. They are susceptible to boredom, can be reckless, they tend to be unreflective, and they can be opportunistic. They also tend to live in urban areas, where the action is, and they are attracted to other 'explorers'.
Individuals with high serotonin levels could be characterized as 'builders'- they are guardians, pillars of society, they tend to observe social norms. They tend to be cautious and modest and enjoy familiarity. They like orderliness and structure, are fact-oriented and literal... they tend to be concrete thinkers. They are usually modest and pragmatic. They like to belong and are usually calm and controlled. They believe in loyalty. They can also be close minded, controlling, and moralistic.
Individuals with high testosterone levels could be characterized as 'directors'. They tend to be analytical and rank-oriented. They tend to believe in dominance matching- an attack should be met with an attack. In confrontations, they loom in order to look big rather than crouching to look little. They tend to be emotionally contained or they block their emotions. They can be less empathetic- Dr Fisher noted that, evolutionarily speaking, men's jobs didn't require empathy- empathy doesn't help a hunter as it dispatches a baby gazelle.
Individuals with high estrogen levels could be characterized as 'negotiators', they also tend to have higher oxytocin levels. Women tend to have better connected brains than men do. Dr Fisher joked that, while there are more male geniuses than female geniuses, there are also more male idiots than females. Negotiators tend to be more intuitive and more empathetic- they are adept at reading postures, gestures, and tones of voice. They tend to be trusting, which often works against them when they trust the wrong person. If they trust the right person, then they can achieve metabolic savings- it's easier to function when you have a good partner. They tend to be introspective, finding meaning in everything. They tend to value harmony and have a high diplomatic intelligence. They can be scattered and indecisive, gullible, and overeager to please. They can also be backstabbing and unforgiving. They tend to have excellent memories.
Each individual is a combination of all four of these categories. Citing the case of Darwin, not only was he an explorer, but he was a connector- combining the dopamine and estrogen 'types'. Dr Fisher noted that all four types are needed for a functional social group- over millions of years of evolution, hominids tended to form bands of about twenty-five individuals, typically twelve juveniles and twelve to thirteen adults. If every individual in the group went after that unusual mushroom, the prospects of the band wouldn't be so great. In evolutionary matters, group selection is the key.
The lecture then shifted to a topic summed up by the question, can romantic love last? Long term romantic love involves activity in the ventral pallidum, a part of the brain involved in pain suppression and maintaining calm. Happy relationships involve positive allusions- focusing on what you like about your partner. Express empathy, overlook stress, and accentuate the positive. Introducing novelty into a relationship drives up dopamine levels. Touching, hugging, hand holding, and kissing raise oxytocin levels. Regular sex attaches the sex drive with the drive for romantic love. Expressing affection reduces cortisol levels in both partners.
The finale of the lecture involved the future of sex. Dr Fisher noted that the golden rule ("treat your partner as you want to be treated") should be superseded by the platinum rule: "Treat your partner as they want to be treated." When approaching a new relationship, you should ask yourself the following questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who do I want others to think I am? What traits do I express? Dr Fisher noted that LGBTQ individuals do not differ from heterosexual individuals, people should just be categorized as normal. She stressed that dating apps do not change how we love, they only change how we court. We fall in love in the same way we have for millions of years, the algorithms just change how we meet. The one danger that these apps pose is cognitive overload- the more individuals we meet, the less we want particular individuals. We need more limited choices, we need to overlook certain things. Even looks stop counting after a while, so we need to think of reasons to say yes. There's a benefit to taking things slow, though, get to know individuals better.
A study of singles indicated that 50% of people have had one night stands or a 'friends with benefits' situation. While the press may characterize this 'hook up culture' as reckless, it's actually a cautious behavior. The main driver for this is the fear of divorce. People can try out partners on a 'pre-commitment' or 'commitment-lite' basis. Marriage isn't the beginning, but the end- and this attitude will probably lead to more happy marriages. There's an unquenchable, adaptive, primordial urge to love.
Oddly enough, while I asked a question in the Q&A, I totally forgot what my question was, and I didn't even drink that much beer. I blame an imbalance of neurotransmitters...
Dr Fisher features in a lot of videos, and it's hard to pick just one to express the topics covered in her lecture. Pick any one, pour yourself a libation, and soak in that secret science ambiance. Kudos to Dr Fisher, Margaret and Dorian, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. Once again, the SSC served up a lovely, lovely lecture.
POSTSCRIPT: Finally remembered my question- it regarding 'gaming' the system by giving answers that the subject thought the questioner would ask. That elicited the bit about portraying yourself as you think the other person wishes you to be.