Home » Why We Love, Why We Cheat: Helen Fisher (Transcript)

Why We Love, Why We Cheat: Helen Fisher (Transcript)

But the moment you fall in love, you become extremely sexually possessive of them. I think there’s a Darwinian purpose to this. The whole point of this is to pull two people together strongly enough to begin to rear babies as a team.

But the main characteristics of romantic love are craving: an intense craving to be with a particular person, not just sexually, but emotionally. It would be nice to go to bed with them, but you want them to call you on the telephone, to invite you out, etc., to tell you that they love you.

The other main characteristic is motivation. The motor in the brain begins to crank, and you want this person. And last but not least, it is an obsession.

Before I put these people in the MRI machine, I would ask them all kinds of questions. But my most important question was always the same. It was: “What percentage of the day and night do you think about this person?”

And indeed, they would say, “All day. All night. I can never stop thinking about him or her.”

And then, the very last question — I would always have to work myself up to this question, because I’m not a psychologist. I don’t work with people in any kind of traumatic situation.

My final question was always the same. I would say, “Would you die for him or her?” And, indeed, these people would say “Yes!” as if I had asked them to pass the salt.

I was just staggered by it. So we scanned their brains, looking at a photograph of their sweetheart and looking at a neutral photograph, with a distraction task in between. So we could look at the same brain when it was in that heightened state and when it was in a resting state.

And we found activity in a lot of brain regions. In fact, one of the most important was a brain region that becomes active when you feel the rush of cocaine. And indeed, that’s exactly what happens.

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I began to realize that romantic love is not an emotion. In fact, I had always thought it was a series of emotions, from very high to very low. But actually, it’s a drive. It comes from the motor of the mind, the wanting part of the mind, the craving part of the mind.

The kind of part of the mind when you’re reaching for that piece of chocolate, when you want to win that promotion at work. The motor of the brain. It’s a drive.

And in fact, I think it’s more powerful than the sex drive. You know, if you ask somebody to go to bed with you, and they say, “No, thank you,” you certainly don’t kill yourself or slip into a clinical depression.

But certainly, around the world, people who are rejected in love will kill for it. People live for love. They kill for love. They die for love. They have songs, poems, novels, sculptures, paintings, myths, legends.

In over 175 societies, people have left their evidence of this powerful brain system. I have come to think it’s one of the most powerful brain systems on Earth for both great joy and great sorrow.

And I’ve also come to think that it’s one of three basically different brain systems that evolved from mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive: the craving for sexual gratification. W.H. Auden called it an “intolerable neural itch,” and indeed, that’s what it is. It keeps bothering you a little bit, like being hungry.

The second of these three brain systems is romantic love: that elation, obsession of early love.

And the third brain system is attachment: that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner. And I think that the sex drive evolved to get you out there, looking for a whole range of partners. You can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody.

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I think romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy. And I think that attachment, the third brain system, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.

So with that preamble, I want to go into discussing the two most profound social trends. One of the last 10,000 years and the other, certainly of the last 25 years, that are going to have an impact on these three different brain systems: lust, romantic love and deep attachment to a partner.

The first is women working, moving into the workforce. I’ve looked at 130 societies through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. Everywhere in the world, 129 out of 130 of them, women are not only moving into the job market — sometimes very, very slowly, but they are moving into the job market — and they are very slowly closing that gap between men and women in terms of economic power, health and education. It’s very slow.

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