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Helen Fisher , scanning for love

Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who focuses on issues of gender, sex and romantic love. She and her team recently did MRI scans on people in love – married couples, and people who had been recently dumped and were still in love.

In trying to understand romantic love, she’s reading poetry from all around the world. She believes that love is about focus – you focus on the object of love with intense energy, mood swings and a real dependence on the partner. Sexual possesiveness is a huge part of romantic love. But the most serious part is an intense craving for attention from the other person – a craving that becomes, basically, an obsession.

She scanned the brains of people who were acutely in love. She showed them pictures of their beloved, and neutral pictures. The activity in the brain is very similar to the part activated by cocaine. It’s not an emotion, but a drive – perhaps more important than the sex drive. People live, kill and die for love.

There may be three different systems to support the evolutionary urge for mating – the sex drive, romantic love, and attachement. The sex drive gets you looking for a range of partners; romantic love gets you focused on one partner, saving mating time and energy… and attachement is the system that allows you to tolerate another human for the amount of time neccesary to raise a child.

In 129 of 130 societies, women are moving into the job market and closing a gap between men and women. She sees this as women moving “back” into the job market, because in hunter-gatherer days, women were regarded as much as breadwinners as men. Plow agriculture was the invention that disempowered women – the post industrial revolution is bringing them back.

Anyone who believes that men and women are identical never had a boy and girl child. We’re like two feet – we need each other to get ahead – but we’re finding major gender differences in the brain. Women’s verbal abilities are tied to a menstrual cycle, but even at their worst, they’re better than men’s skills. 54% of writers in American are women. They’re web thinkers, great negotiators, contextual, holistic thinkers. Men, on average, tend to be more focused and linear. There are many more male geniuses – and idiots – in the world. But we’re moving towards a collaborative society.

Women moving into the job market is having a huge impact on sex, romance and married life. In the western world, women have more partners with men, less regret about partners, move on more easily than men. We’re moving forward to more equitable marriage. And we’re seeing the rise of romantic love – the majority of people in the world want to be “in love” with the person they marry.

These three brain systems – lust, love and attachement – don’t always go very well together. Orgasm releases chemicals associated with attachement. You can feel attachement for someone, while feeling lust for another and love for yet another. We’re capable of loving more than one person at a time. We’re not an animal that was built to be happy – we are an animal that was built to reproduce.

A worry Fisher shares: antidepressants. There are 130 million prescriptions for antidepressants written in the US. They’re serotonin enhancers… and dopamine suppressors… which is precisely the system involved with romantic love and the sex drive. When you kill the sex drive, you kill orgasm, which can damage attachement. A world without love is a deadly place.

Fisher ends with a very funny story about a love researcher who tries to use a novel experience – a rickshaw ride – to drive up the woman’s dopamine level in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him. Predictably, she falls for the rickshaw driver… the magic of love.

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