Feb 23 2016
This is the second post around the topic of relationships, sexuality and creator energy, in which we’ll explore: Why are we attracted to certain people? Last week my husband introduced me to the work of Dr. Helen Fisher, who studies human mating and bonding patterns from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist.
Why are we attracted to certain people?
What is the biology behind choosing a mate?
In “The Anatomy of Love,” Helen Fisher, PhD explored the natural history of mating, marriage, adultery and divorce from prehistoric cultures to modern societies across the globe. Her brain research revealed four major types of people with specific thinking and behavior patterns:
- Explorers (curious/energetic) had expressive traits (e.g. adventure, venture, spontaneity, energy, new, fun, traveling, outgoing, passion, active) linked with the dopamine system.
- Builders (cautious/social norm compliant) had traits (e.g. family, honest, loyal, caring, morals, values, respect, order, trust, loving, trustworthy) linked with the serotonin system.
- Directors (analytical/tough-minded) had traits (e.g. intelligent, decisive, direct, focused, ambitious, driven, strategic, bold, competitive) linked with high testosterone.
- Negotiators (prosocial/empathetic) had traits (e.g. passion, intuition, kind, sensitive, compassion, imagination, trusting, empathy) linked with high estrogen and oxytocin.
Fisher said we are all expressive of all four types. But each of us has a primary and secondary type that reflect the ratios and interactions among the family of chemicals and neural systems.
- Explorers tend to seek other Explorers, and Builders are drawn to other Builders, who are similar to themselves in biology and behavioral traits. In their case, like attracts like.
- But high testosterone-driven Directors seek their opposite type, the high estrogen-driven Negotiators, and vice versa. In their case, opposites attract.
According to Fisher, each of us builds a unique “love map” from various family and cultural experiences that determine whom, when and where we love. The love map is an unconscious list of traits that we’re looking for in an ideal partner, that we project onto a person we meet (e.g. body type, age, interests, personality, quirks, humor, conversations, erotic activities).
Image: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) for brain research
How is our brain wired for mating?
Fisher described three brain systems for mating designed for survival of the species:
- Lust is associated primarily with testosterone in both men and women. The sex drive motivates us to find a range of potential mating partners.
- Romantic love is linked with dopamine, as well as norepinephrine and low serotonin. It makes us focus on one individual at a time.
- Deep attachment is produced by oxytocin (female) and vasopressin (male). It allows us to stay together long enough to raise a child through infancy or longer.
These three brain systems can occur in any order, and are not always well connected. For example, you may feel deep attachment for a spouse, while you feel romantic passion for a friend or a coworker, while you feel the sex drive for other individuals. Fisher observed:
- Explorers are more likely to become Romance junkies, because they like novelty, seek thrills, adventures and the dopamine rush of romantic love.
- Builders are more likely to become Attachment junkies, who sacrifice their own needs and remain longer in poor or unsatisfying relationships.
- Directors are more likely to become Violence junkies, when rejected. They like to take action and are less skilled in expressing themselves verbally or socially.
- Negotiators are more likely to become Despair junkies, who may obsessively think about rejection or become clinically depressed or suicidal over it.
Can love be addictive?
Fisher said the drive to love is a basic human drive, but also a natural addiction associated with the reward system in our brain. It is fueled by dopamine also linked with cravings and addictions to drugs (cocaine, heroin, amphetamines), alcohol, sex, food, gambling, etc.
“I think romantic love is an addiction…a positive addiction when one’s love is recipro-cated, nontoxic, and appropriate, and a disastrously negative addition when one’s feelings of romantic love are inappropriate, poisonous, unreciprocated, and/or formally rejected.” – Helen Fisher
When rejected, most people go through signs of withdrawal (e.g. protest, crying, lethargy, sleep and appetite disturbances, irritability, etc.). But their brain scans show they’re still in love and deeply attached to the rejecting partner even two months after the breakup.
“Like heroin addicts, they are chemically wedded to their mates.” – Helen Fisher
She said lovers can also relapse the same way addicts do long after the relationship is over. They go through the phases of denial, protest, resignation/despair, transition and recovery. Some turn to alcohol, drugs, or may get ill (e.g. heart attack, stroke). Others may develop “abandonment rage” leading to crimes of passion or violence (e.g. mass/school shootings).
I hope you have a better understanding of what we call “love.” There is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Thankfully, Dr. Fisher just published her newly revised and updated book, “The Anatomy of Love,” which makes for fascinating reading. We’ll cover many more topics from her work in my upcoming posts.
This is but a glimpse at the biology of the human vehicle, which is really driven by the soul that animates it from within. This post mostly serves as an introduction to our next big question: Why are we attracted to certain souls? Stay tuned!
Journalist: Why do you only write about relationships? Nora Ephron: Is there something else? 🙂
For more information, please see:
Helen Fisher: Anatomy of Love: A natural history of mating, marriage and why we stray, 2016
LL Brown, B Acevedo & HE Fisher: Neural correlates of four broad temperament dimensions: testing predictions for a novel construct of personality. – PubMed – NCBI, 2013
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