The Biology of Love: Who We Choose and Why

Valentine’s Day inspires a post about someone who has dedicated her career to studying the science behind attraction and desire. For more than thirty years, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., has studied the link between brain chemistry and romantic love, in hopes of better understanding the patterns that occur when human beings choose their mates.

Fisher—biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and author of Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love—recently gave a talk as part of PopTech 2014’s “Rebellion” series, which featured a diverse range of specialists who examined the “rebellious possibilities that drive us ever forward.” Fisher’s talk, entitled “What We Want”, included asking the audience to consider why we choose one person over another and what makes a happy partnership. “[Romantic love] is a powerful brain system…It comes from primordial parts of the brain way below the cortex. It gives you the energy, the focus, the ecstasy, the despair, and the motivation…It’s a drive to win life’s greatest prize.

Fisher, who is chief scientific advisor to match.com, attracted media attention in 2005 when she collaborated with the creators of the popular website to craft a new platform for online dating: chemistry.com. Through this site, she posted an anonymous questionnaire and then studied the answers of 100,000 people who participated. To her surprise, Fisher found that no two results were identical.

In a similar study, Fisher worked with colleagues to scan the brains of people who recently fell in love, were rejected by love, and those who have been happily married for more than twenty-one years. By studying human mating habits, it was determined that there are four chemical triggers in the brain—dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin—that link to brain systems and common personality traits.

People listed under the dopamine system (also categorized as explorers) are sensation seekers, risk takers, curious, and restless. Serotonin people (builders) are more structured, calm, respectful, and cautious. Those in the testosterone category (directors) are bold, analytical, emotionally-contained, and straightforward. Finally, the estrogen/oxytocin system belongs to the negotiators (long-term thinkers who are very personable, imaginative, and introspective). Fisher concluded that depending on his or her category, people are likely to choose a partner that complements their particular brain system.

When asked for her thoughts on whether or not technology negatively affects human relationships, she said that although “courtship is changing,” technology is expanding the dating pool, and “we may be on the verge of seeing more happy marriages in the world today.” She noted that romance, attachment, and sex systems in the brain evolved millions of years ago and will continue to evolve for as long as mankind inhabits the planet.

As human beings, we are drawn to others—whether it’s a friend or romantic interest—that balance well with our personalities. As Fisher found through her studies, only a small percentage of people still choose their partners on a basis of “clanism”. As we move forward with human evolution, the tendency to stay within a tightknit circle of people who share the same ethnicity or religion is also changing. She found three common traits among those who are in long-term, happy relationships: empathy, the ability to control stress and emotions, and “positive illusions”—the ability to overlook flaws and focus on the positive aspects of their mate’s personality.

Says Fisher, “Any prediction of the future needs to take into account the most important determinant of the future—our unquenchable, adaptable, and primordial human drive to love.”

For more videos from Helen Fisher, click here.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

-Seimi Rurup

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