Book review, Helen Fisher Ph.D., Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love


Book review
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love
Hardcover - 320 pages
First Edition, February 4, 2004
Published by Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN 0-8050-6913-5 / ISBN 0805069135

If you ask people, "What is it that's ruined as soon as you scientifically analyze it?", many will say that you must be talking about love. They will be pleasantly surprised by Dr. Helen Fisher's new book.

In Why We Love, the distinguished Rutgers anthropology professor sees our most sublime emotions in terms of the circuitry and chemistry of the brain. All the while, she possesses the greatest wonder and exuberance about them. She glides naturally between remarks about hormones and neurotransmitters -- and the thrill expressed in her favorite quotes from poets, playwrights, novelists, philosophers and opera composers about the passions of the heart.

The author and her assistants conducted studies in which they put out calls for volunteers who describes themselves on questionaires as being "wildly in love" [page xii], "deeply and happily in love" [63], and then compared their brain scans to those of control groups. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine actually takes pictures of blood flow, made possible because the iron in blood is a magnetic metal. When certain parts of the brain increase their activity, the cells require more oxygen, and the cells therefore take in more oxygen-carrying blood. In effect, we get pictures of accelerated brain activity by region. [57]

While being scanned, the most madly-in-love subjects, as well as the control subjects, were to gaze alternately upon pictures of their beloved ones and pictures of neutral objects, with the delays between the two picture types filled with thoughts of arithmetic problems. [57, 63]

The results exhibited correlations between certain answers on the love questionaire and the levels of activity in certain brain departments. For example, the passionate lovers were more lit up in the areas of the so-called "reptilian brain" structures (the caudate nucleus) and also in the part of the brain with the greatest density of the cells that secrete dopamine (the ventral tegmental area, or VTA) [69-71] In Helen Fisher's sense of humor, that's "the furniture in your head." [68]

Studies of this sort led Dr. Fisher to arrive at a "working hypothesis" -- with "caveats." [55]

It appears now that romantic passion is associated with elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, and lowered levels of seratonin.

As a reality check, the author compared what we feel happening to us, when we are crazy in love, to the known effects of these chemical changes. Increased dopamine makes us feel goal-directed. Increased norepinephrine makes us notice and remember minor details. Both of these chemicals make us feel ecstatic or exhilirated. They can cause the heart to pound, make us breathe more heavily, and can contribute to sleeplessness. Lowered levels of seratonin make us become obsessive or assign special meaning to little details. [51-75] Yes, the flavor of that cocktail recipe does remind one of falling in love. People who are in deeply in love are "drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina, and vigor." [72]

The author's work also reproduced the results of an earlier study done in London that showed a correlation between long-term relationships and the level of activity two brain regions -- the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. [73] Dr.

Fisher looks to evolution by natural selection to explain the origin of romantic love. While powerful sexual attraction developed by increasing the probability of passing our genes to future generations, romantic preference has a very different function. She explains, "Romantic love emerged to drive men and women to focus their mating attention on a preferred individual, thereby conserving invaluable courtship time and energy." [78]

Other sections of the book consider many additional aspects of love, such as initial awkwardness, love at first sight, the significance of the sense of smell, mood swings, jealousy, persistence, hypersensitivity to cues, and much more. She explores the connections but also the differences between sexual attraction and emotional union.

Why We Love is hugely successful at combining the magic with the science. Dr. Fisher never fails to express joy and fascination with the boundless emotion that dwells in our family structures and pervades our history and literature. At the same time, she illuminates our inward look with scientific curiosity.

"This passion is a foundation stone of human social life," she writes, and "a clearer understanding of this whirlwind may help people find and sustain this glorious passion." [xi]

- - - - - - Book review by M. L. for, 2004


Press release received from the publisher:

Based on Groundbreaking Research, a Renowned Anthropologist Sheds New Light on the Mysteries of Romantic Attraction.

The experience of romantic love -- the elation, mood swings, sleeplessness, and obsession -- cuts across time, geography, and gender. Until now, our understanding of love has largely been shaped by the wisdom of poets, the anecdotes of the lovestruck, the observations of psychologists, and the musings of brokenhearted musicians.

In Why We Love, Helen Fisher offers new insight into this universal phenomenon based on her innovative scientific research. Working with a team of scientists to scan the brains of people who had just fallen madly in love, Fisher and her colleagues proved at last what psychologists had only suspected: when you fall in love, specific areas of the brain "light up" with increased blood flow. Using this data, she concludes that romantic passion is, in fact, hardwired into our brains by millions of years of evolution. It is not an emotion; it is a drive as powerful as hunger.

In this fascinating look at our most fundamental urge, Fisher reveals exactly what you experience when you fall in love, why you choose one person rather than another, and how romantic love biologically affects your sex drive and your feelings of attachment to a partner. She shows that all animals feel romantic attraction, that love at first sight comes out of nature, and that human romance evolved for reasons crucial to survival. She also discusses differences in the male and female brains, and what this means for the way we love. Last, she offers concrete suggestions on how to control this ancient passion, and she optimistically explores the future of romantic love in our modern chaotic world.

Provocative, enlightening, and persuasive, Why We Love offers radical new answers to age-old questions: What is love? Why do we fall in love? And how can we keep love alive?

About the author:

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is one of this country's most prominent anthropologists. Prior to becoming a research professor at Rutgers University, she was a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Dr. Fisher has conducted extensive research on the evolution, expression, and chemistry of love. Her two most recent books, The First Sex and Anatomy of Love, were New York Times Notable Books. She grew up in Connecticut and lives in New York City.