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Anthropologist discusses biology of love

People today are more likely to have sex earlier but wait longer to get married, biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher said in a lecture on Feb. 20.

“We’re very well built to fall in love, for pair bonding and real sorrow in relationships,” explained Fisher. A member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in Rutgers University’s Department of Anthropology, as well as chief scientific advisor of, Fisher talked about the science behind love — why we are attracted to one person instead of another, and how evolution shaped the biological processes behind human love.

She began her talk by saying that love is universal and that the phenomenon is comparable among people regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation.

Contrary to what women’s magazines may say, Fisher said men are more romantic than women. They fall in love more often and more quickly and are two-and-a-half times more likely to kill themselves when a relationship ends.

She explained that there were three basic brain systems that govern mating and reproduction: one for sex drive, one for romantic attraction, and the last for attachment.

“I think all three of these brain systems evolved for different reasons,” Fisher said.

The first gave our ancestors the instinctive drive for sex; the second, the ability to focus our energy on that one special someone; and the last, the capacity to tolerate someone and sticking with him or her at least long enough to raise a child, she said.

Once you’re attracted to someone, everything about that person becomes sexy, even “the way he gets on the bus,” she added.

Fisher then explained the neuroscience behind love. A certain region of the brain becomes activated when one is in love, she said, and this region is the same that becomes activated in “all ... substance addictions and behavioral addictions.”

According to her, love is a “wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a horrible addiction” when it’s not. Fisher added that she wouldn’t be surprised if modern drugs “hijacked” the brain system developed for mating and love.

Continuing her examination of the evolutionary and anthropological origins of love, she described her hypothesis of how human romantic love evolved with human pair bonding.

Once our ancestors moved out of living in trees and started walking on two limbs instead of four, women couldn’t carry both a baby — the equivalent of a “twenty-pound bowling ball” — and tools to perform the necessities of survival.

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“She began to need a mate to help her rear her young, at least through infancy,” Fisher said.

On the other hand, men couldn’t defend multiple women and their babies simultaneously. So, according to Fisher, our ancestors crossed the monogamy threshold at one point, and the circuitry for romantic love evolved.

Then, after examining the traditional factors behind what makes certain people likely to fall in love with each other, such as similarity in socioeconomic and ethnic background, education, and social values, Fisher asked if biology could be involved.

She explained that she has found four traits linked to biological systems, or four "brain systems, each one linked with a host of personality traits.” These systems correspond to different levels of four substances in the body, namely dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin.

Everyone has his or her own unique personality signature, a combination of different levels of these four systems. And those with dopamine- and serotonin-dominant personality signatures are attracted to others with similar personality signatures, while those with testosterone- and estrogen/oxytocin-dominant personality signatures are attracted to individuals of the other personality signature.

Wrapping up the talk, Fisher said “we’re moving into ... an era of slow love. I think people today are terrified of divorce.” Thus, she said, people take a long time before they get married, even though they have sex quite early on. She called the occurrence “fast sex: slow love.”

“Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, [but] now it’s the finale,” she said. Due to the longer time people are spending finding the right partner, she said that “we’re going to move into a generation of much happier marriages.”

The talk was titled “The Science of Love.” It was part of “Conversations on Love,” a student-organized series of talks on love, and it was held in Frist Campus Center at 4:30 on Feb. 20. “Conversations on Love” will be hosting more talks this week; the schedule is available on the group’s Facebook page.