A Brain Map of How We Love, Who We Love, and Why We Love
Pop Tech 2014
Thursday, October 30, 2014 9:09 AM
Most of us know that romantic love, sexual attraction, and emotional attachment are related, but not the same. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who has spent the bulk of her career investigating how we love, why we love, and who we love, scanned and mapped the areas of the brain and the hormones associated with love, sexual attraction, and attachment. She went on to tease out some of the answers of what motivates us in love, regardless of culture, from a data set that includes 13 million people from 40 countries.
Vaccinating Against Love? 150 million people are on anti-depressants but Big Pharma has never done a study on the social impacts of blunting the hormone in the brain that triggers emotional attachment — the core element of human social and reproductive life. (Photos: Pop Tech)
Pop Tech 2014 talks can be watched online for the next two weeks at http://fora.tv/conference/poptech_2014
Fisher, who has written several books on the subject, including "Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love" (2010) and "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love" (2004), discussed some of her findings at Pop Tech, including analysis of how the research applies in contemporary America.
We are meant to be monogamous and adulterous
"What is clear, is that the human animal is not built to share," said Fisher, noting that 86 percent of world cultures allow men to have more than one wife, but only five to ten percent of the men in those cultures actually do.
That does not mean that lifelong monogamy comes naturally, she said. Starting with the basic conclusion from her research that humans are both naturally monogamous and also naturally adulterous, Fisher said relationships in the 21st century are going to have to increasingly come to terms with trying to find a balance between commitment and autonomy, particularly as women continue to move towards more social and economic equity.
Fisher's brain maps, derived from MRI brain scans of people who are happily in love, have been rejected in love, and who are in long-term loving relationships, indicate that love, sexual attraction and emotional attachment reside in three distinctly different areas in the reptilian lower brain, which also houses other basic survival triggers, like hunger and thirst. All are associated with specific hormones and while they are located near each other, they are not in the same spots.
Their functions differ, with the sex drive prompting people to look at a whole range of partners, and romantic love focusing mating energy on just one person at a time.
"The three systems connect. You fall in love, dopamine goes up and that triggers testosterone and all of a sudden every single thing she does is cute and sexy," said Fisher.
The reverse is also true. Casual sex can lead to a rise in dopamine that can lead to love, the data shows, by spraying dopamine over the brain region that controls all three systems.
Love is not logical, and yes, it can be addictive. Scans indicate that the brain area associated with addiction is triggered in those who can't get over being rejected in love.
On the flip side, her brain scans of older people in China and the U.S. showed the parts of the brain associated with stress control and empathy are active in those who are in happy, long-term love relationships.
"I mean really in love," said Fisher. "Not just loving."
"This is the simple ability to overlook what you don't like about them and focus on what you do," she said.
Big Pharma complicit in vaccinating against love
Fisher said these interacting systems in the brain have not been taken into account by the drug industry, which annually dispenses 150 million prescriptions for anti-depressants that trigger changes in the hormone serotonin.
It is known that 73 percent of patients who take these kinds of anti-depressants have a lower sex drive as a result, said Fisher. The drugs also lower dopamine and blunt emotions, she said.
Big Pharma has essentially created a vaccine against love, said Fisher.
"There have been no studies on how these drugs affect the three brain systems that are at the very core of human social and reproductive life," she said.
"In fact, we don't know anything about how drugs, alcohol, food, and exercise affect the most powerful part of our lives," said Fisher.
You have to pick the right person
In 2005, Match.com, one of the largest online dating services in the world, asked Fisher for a meeting and brought their top team in to ask: Why do you fall in love with one person and not another?
"I don't know," Fisher said. "Nobody knows."
We know we tend to fall in love with people from the same socio-economic background, ethnicity, intelligence, education, and looks, said Fisher. Timing and proximity also have something to do with it and probably an internal Love Map of what we think we want in a mate does, too."But you can walk into a room and everyone has the same background and education and you don't fall in love with all of them," said Fisher.
Is it biology? Is it chemistry?
Fisher developed an extensive questionnaire based on biological research results from her brain scans and other sources and launched a study of 100,000 people.
The Love Map
We looked at personality traits linked with the brain systems and with the hormones associated with them: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen, said Fisher.
"Thirteen million people have now taken that questionnaire," said Fisher. "That is Big Data."
The database has allowed Fisher to tease out details and patterns of biologically based traits that are not much different from what Plato, Carl Jung, and Myers-Briggs identified as personality traits.
"What I am really doing is adding the biology to it," said Fisher.
The amount of data also allows for increasing levels of detail. Fisher has identified four basic distinct types,with variations implied and more detail emerging as the data flows in and is analyzed.
The Explorer: High in Dopamine
Those with higher dopamine levels tend to be risk-takers, sensation-seekers, curious, make and lose a lot of money, and are typically optimistic, energetic, restless, creative, self-reliant, and intellectual. They tend to be attracted to people like themselves.
I would expect that most of the people at Pop Tech are high-dopamine people, said Fisher.
The Pillar of Society: High in Serotonin
"I called them 'Builders' and I'm kind of stuck with that term, now," said Fisher, who identified high-serotonin types as the guardians of society - traditionalists who prefer the familiar, are law-abiding, and follow social norms. They tend to be calm, orderly, loyal, good with numbers and think in concrete and literal terms. They also are more likely to be religious, Japanese or Chinese. Politically, they tend to be Republican.
"When asked if they had to choose between loyal or interesting friends, the other three types could tolerate disloyal friends if they are interesting enough. This type can't."
They also tend to be romantically drawn to people like themselves.
The General: High in Testosterone
While testosterone and estrogen are often seen as male and female hormones, all of us have both hormones in varying amounts, so it is not particularly unusual to have high-testosterone women or high-estrogen men, said Fisher.
Those high in testosterone tend to be logical, experimental, exacting, daring, competitive, and rank-oriented. They tend to be bold and decisive, but also prickly and brash, and tend to be self-disciplined.
"These are the ones that scream: 'Get to the point!'"
"Steve Jobs? Definitely," said Helen Fisher, noting that high cheekbones and square jaw also tend to be associated with this type. But not always.
They also tend to be attracted to their opposite, the Negotiators. In the case of Hillary Clinton, a testosterone-dominant personality, her opposite was Bill.
The Negotiator: High in Estrogen
"You know, we often hear: When will we have our first female president," said Fisher. "I think we already have. It was Bill Clinton. You know? 'I feel your pain.' Empathy is a high-estrogen trait. And when someone asked Hillary why she married Bill, she said: 'He wasn't afraid of me.'"
Those who are estrogen-dominant tend to be emotionally expressive, diplomatic, are able to see the big picture and have a mind that synthesizes information efficiently. They tolerate ambiguity, are imaginative, mentally flexible, and are good with language. They communicate with and are aware of posture, gesture, and tone of voice.
"We now know the biology of that. Women are better at it, generally, and it makes you more successful in business," said Fisher.
This type also tends to be more trusting, which can be a waste of time, reproductively speaking, if the trust is misplaced, said Fisher, though it is less likely to happen, given the strong intuitive bent of this type.
Notably, as women enter middle age and estrogen diminishes, they tend to become more assertive and more emotionally contained as testosterone is unmasked, she said.
The Brain Map in the Workplace
We know the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated, said Fisher. The data has led her to discard the Golden Rule. Instead, Fisher suggests applying the Platinum Rule.
"Treat someone how they want to be treated. Understand them, and they can hear you and you both will win."