‘The Drive to Love: Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection’ by Helen Fisher

(Chapter 5 in The New Psychology of Love edited by Robert J. Sternberg & Karen Weis, Yale University Press; New Haven, 2006)

Helen Fisher has studied romantic love for 30 years!  Recently she’s moved from studying romantic love in different cultures across time and space, to some more empirical research.  First she conducted a study of 400+ Americans and 400+ Japanese and discovered that romantic love does not vary considerably by age, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group.  Having been convinced from her social studies that romantic love was a universal human experience, she teemed up with some inter-disciplinary colleagues and conducted a fMRI study of the human brain ‘ in love.’     

“In fact, I have come to believe that romantic love is one of three discrete, interrelated emotion/motivation systems that all birds and mammals have evolved to direct courtship, mating, reproduction, and parenting.  The other two are the sex drive and attachment.  Each brain system is associated with different feelings and behaviors; each is associated with a different (and dynamic) constellation of neural correlates; each evolved to direct a different aspect of reproduction; and each interacts ith the other two in myriad combinations to produce the range of emotions, motivations, and behaviors associated with all types of love.”  

The sex drive is primarily associated with the androgens, particularly testosterone (in both women and men) with brain activity in the hypothalamus and the amygdala.

The attraction drive (romantic love) is primarily associated with elevated activity of dopamine in the reward pathways of the brain.  It is also likely to be associated with elevated activity of central norepinephrine and suppressed activity of central serotonin, as well as other brain systems activing together to produce increased energy, focussed attention, possessiveness, competitiveness, sexual arousal and has many similarities to other addictive neurological maps. 

Finally, the attachment drive (long term affection for a particular companion) is primarily associated with oxytocin and vasopressin in the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum respectively.  The traists include mammalian traits of nest building, mutual feeding and groomin, staying close, shared parental chores and affiliative behaviors plus feelings of calm, security, social comfort, and emotional union with a long term mate. 

“The sex drive evolved to motivate our ancestors to seek coitus with a range of appropriate partners.  Atraction (and its developed human form, romantic love) evolved to motivate individuals to select among potential mates, prefer a particular individual, and focus courtnship attention on this favored mating partner, thereby conserving courtship time and energy.  Attachment evolved primarily to motivate individuals to sustain an affiliative connection with this reproductive partner at least long enough to complete species-specific duties.  Moreover, these three brain systems interact in myriad ways to direct many behaviors, emotions, and motivations associated with human reproduction.”

Whilst I cannot pretend that I understand this science, there does seem to be quite a bit of support for her conclusions in associated literature which I have scanned to my limited capacities.  If you have a capacity for science, I suggest you read the article.  If not, she gave a really accessible 15 min TED lecture  which gives you the gist of it.  You can check out her website for more fascinating research on sex, romance and love.

Fisher’s research leads her to several conclusions about romantic love.  Falling in love can legitimately be described as an addiction alongside food, alcohol, drugs, gambling and nicotine.  Also, those who have higher base levels of dopamine and serotonin in their biology are likely to fall in love more easil, more intensely and more often.  Similarly those with illnesses or circumstances that reduce dopamine levels have a reduced ‘risk’  of falling in love.  

In comparing people who were newly in love, newly rejected in love, and still in love after 30 years together, she believes that romantic love has the capacity to be enduring – dopamine continues to be primarily active, though shifting to different location in jilted lovers; and complimented with high levels of seratonin in long-term lovers. “Changes in cognition and emotion occur as love proceeds.”  There is a complex psychobiological interactions between lust, romantic love and attachment.  Increased dopamine when one is in love, tends to induce the release of testosterone (sexual arousal).  Sexual activity can also produce dopamine, particularly in women, and orgasim produces a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin associated with attachment.

So… why do I care about all this?  Two reasons:

1.  Christian Morality:  How does this inform my ongoing questioning about love and marriage in contemporary society?  If Fisher is correct, falling in love as a precurser to marriage will endure through cultural change.  The potential for falling in love also endures through-out a person’s lifetime, providing a challenge to marriage when one does not fall in love with one’s committed partner, even when that partner is affectionately loved.  Also, if  sex is a seperate issue to the longing for intimacy and the formation of long-term bonds: what are the implications for the GLBT community and for those who have sufferred sexual trauma and find sexual relationships difficult?  What are the implications for pastoral care?

2.  Integrated Spirituality:  The distinction between sex, attraction and affection has some interesting implications for an integrated spirituality.  When a mystic says they are ‘in love’ with Jesus, the desire is first and foremost for wholistic union rather than erotic arousal.  As Fisher says, a person in love longs to sit on the couch together even more than falling into bed.  In one of my recent essays I explored Bernard Lonergan’s image of conversion as falling in love with Jesus.  Fisher’s research provides some wonderful metaphors to further explore and explain what happens in an encounter with the Living Lord.

3 thoughts on “‘The Drive to Love: Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection’ by Helen Fisher

  1. It’s always amusing when a sociologist or anthropologist tries to say something profound about the brain. Helen Fisher may have some interesting cross-cultural perspectives, but I wouldn’t take her pronouncements on neuroscience too literally if I were you.

    • Hopefully you can appreciate my frustration at not being able to assess the science myself because it is beyond my expertise. I appreciate that it must be frustrating to hear sociologists talk about neuroscience!
      However, Helen Fisher is the ‘communicator’ is an interdisciplinary team with some ‘real’ scientists, so you would hope that there is someone keeping an eye on her pronouncements. I think that interdisciplinary teams are really important in this regard.

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