The Brain in Love

shutterstock_94532341Love exists in vastly different societies around the world. It occupies our mind and drives us to create art, write stories, and even commit acts of violence. Religion, values, and other cultural factors influence who we select as a partner. During a talk at the Secret Science Club, a science lecture series held at the Bell House in Brooklyn, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., asked “Are we naturally drawn to some people for biological as well as cultural reasons?”

Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of the newly published Anatomy of Love, looked to brain systems to try and answer this question. She said:

The bottom line is there are a whole lot of systems in the brain, but most of them keep the eyes blinking and the heart beating. They’re not linked with personality traits, but there are four brain systems that are. So I looked at those four: the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen systems. All four of them have a constellation of personality traits linked with them in the biological literature. So I decided what I would do is make a questionnaire to measure the degree to which you express the traits in all four systems.

The questionnaire Fisher developed is used on, owned by, where she is the chief scientific advisor. It has been taken over 8 million times around the world. Each brain system has been given names based on their associated characteristics.

Fisher associates the dopamine system with traits like optimistic, energetic, curious, and enthusiastic, and calls people with these traits Explorers. The serotonin system is associated with traits like cautious, calm, controlled, literal, and detail-oriented, and people with these traits are called Builders. Fisher says both Explorers and Builders look for people of the same “type” as a romantic partner.

The testosterone system contains traits like analytical, defiant, experimental, aloof, and dominant, and people with these traits are called Directors. Donald Trump, Fisher said, is an example of someone who is “all testosterone.” Finally, the estrogen system is associated with traits like empathetic, prosocial, holistic, and contextual, and people with these traits are called Negotiators. Negotiators and Directors look for their opposites, and tend to pair together.

To test her categories for myself, I asked my roommate and her boyfriend take the questionnaire. They both received Director and Negotiator as their dominant types, with over 30 questionnaire points for each type. Since, according to Fisher, Directors and Negotiators usually pair together, it makes sense that they would be a match. Each person’s Director qualities pair with the other person’s Negotiator qualities.

Both sets of results also showed ten or more questionnaire points in both the Explorer and Builder types. These results show that, although the questionnaire aims to identify people’s dominant types, it recognizes that we are a combination of types. In one sample Fisher described, of 100,000 questionnaires, there were no two where people answered identically, highlighting the complexity of fully understanding how people choose their partners. In the meantime, Fisher’s system may give us a new insight into how our brain systems influence who we end up with.

– Ali Chunovic

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