I found biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher at just the right time in my life: I was 23 years old and had just been dumped.
And not just dumped, but blindsided and broken by "my first love." That kind of heartbreak that can only happen when you're young, inexperienced, and grossly stubborn. If classic novels, rock music, and the best scenes in High Fidelity taught me anything, it's that the first break-up is the big one. In trying to avoid cutting off my ear and overdosing on Hank Williams songs, I found Dr. Fisher and her extensive scientific research on "the brain in love." I was looking for some logic to desensitize my emotions; I was sick of drinking myself stupid every night and thought that reading might be a better idea. Fisher spun me back into reality.
Dr. Fisher is a research professor in the anthropology department at Rutgers University, the chief scientific advisor and consultant for Match.com (since 2005), and America's leading researcher on the human brain and cross-cultural patterns of romantic love, mate choice, marriage, divorce, adultery, and brain differences. On top of all that, she has published five best-selling books on her research (with a sixth coming in February 2016) and maintains that romantic love is a universal phenomenon with mechanisms that have been established over evolution. Now in her late 60s, the New York native continues to study the thing she claims is the thing we all want most in this world: love.
Fisher first gained international fame when she and her colleagues put 49 people into a brain scanner (fMRI) to study the brain circuitry involved in romantic love. Fisher and her neurological experts concluded that romantic love is basic drive, like hunger or thirst, that operates below all cognitive thinking and feeling; she equated the concept with cocaine. You get addicted to a person, defying logic and risking a lot to get more of them. This made her a big hit in America, getting the one thing we all uncomfortably feel down to a literal science. Lately, she has turned her research to how we find love in the modern world. Through her annual Singles in America studies with Match.com—as well as through her own research—she has conducted studies of thousands of single and coupled Americans trying to figure out how our biology, evolution, and neurological systems play a part in how we date and find love in the context of today's changing gender and economic roles. Right now, she is working on her latest hypothesis which she calls "fast sex/slow love."
"I am extremely optimistic for some very large reasons," she tells me over the phone from her friend's home in New York. (Her house is be remodeled.) "We are shedding the last 10,000 years of our agrarian background and moving forward to a lifestyle that was actually much more similar to our hunting-and-gathering past."
What she means by this is that economic equality between women and men has changed the way we now look at relationships. In our once hunting-and-gathering society, women came home with 60-80% of what would be eaten, and they were considered just as economically and sexually powerful as men. They left bad relationships when they wanted to, because unlike in the agrarian culture and in the industrial revolution (which found women in the home and out of the work force, stuck at the mercy of their husbands), no one was stuck.
"The belief that a woman's only place is in the home is pretty much gone, and I'm all for it," says Fisher. "I think this is a great hope for humanity."
If you don't have regular intercourse, then most people see this as a barrier to intimacy.
"These days people are terrified of divorce," she continues. "A recent study cited that 67% of people who live together are afraid to get married because of the possibility of divorce and its economic, social, psychological implications and personal consequences. I think now we are marrying later for a reason. I think what we are doing now—with hookup culture, friends with benefits, and living together before marriage—is [wanting] to know everything about another human being before we tie the knot." Fisher believes that even though this culture of promiscuity is viewed as reckless, it is in fact cautious. "We've got a long period of early adulthood to experiment, or what I call 'commitment lite', to see what works for us by hanging out, sleeping together, and getting to know someone before committing to them entirely. By the time we marry, we should have picked quite correctly."
Fisher also says that we have abolished a general value in virginity. "Over 30 percent of people told me they would not date a virgin," she says, and it makes sense in her theory of fast sex and slow love. (The actual statistic, from her 2013 Match.com study, is much higher: around 42 percent. And women are much less likely to date a virgin than men.) "If you don't have regular intercourse, then most people see this as a barrier to intimacy. They need time and experience to get to know that person through sex and perfect their sex life together before committing long term."
Though she has spent much research dismantling myths about women in love (especially in her 1999 book The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Are Changing The World), she firmly believes that men have yet to undergo the same analysis when it comes to the ways they interact in love. The last 50 years have been devoted to understanding how women actually behave in relationships, yet when it comes to men, we stick to same stereotypical notions that men are commitment-phobic, adulterers, hyper-sexual, and insensitive.
"I have data to show [that] is not true," Fisher laughs. "In my studies, questioning 25,000 American people, I have found that men fall in love more often. They fall in love sooner; when they meet someone they are in love with, they want to introduce her to friends and family sooner; they want to move in sooner." She says this goes for both gay and straight men in love.
Furthermore, when I ask her about how sexual orientation or things like gender fluidity affect the brain in love or dating patterns, she is quick to answer. "Scientists have put LGBT people into the brain scanner and found that their brain circuitry is exactly the same. I study romantic love, and those parts of the brain are not connected with who you love but how you love, and they won't change," she says. Fisher also notes that she has started studying trans people taking hormones to understand how testosterone and estrogen doses affect the brain and the way these things play out in common gender traits. Men transitioning to women and taking estrogen may experience more vivid colors or emotional sensitivity, while biological women taking testosterone "see better in the light or feel more skeptical and assertive" in their daily lives.
But despite her optimism about the ways we now find love, she has one fear: drugs. Namely, FDA-approved anti-depressants (SSRIs).
"Over 100 million people in America are taking anti-depressants," she says. "As you boost the serotonin system, you are dampening the dopamine system, which of course is connected to romantic love. I get emails from people around the world saying stuff like, 'My sister has been on Prozac for 20 years and has never had a date.' It doesn't shock me. We know these drugs harm the sex drive.
Men fall in love more often. They fall in love sooner.
"I can really see, down the road, that on dating services people will have to disclose the kinds of medication they take," Fisher continues. "'Hi, my name is Nancy. I take drugs that drive up my serotonin and affect my natural dopamine.'"
This Friday, a documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christian Frei called Sleepless in New York will be available to the general public. At its core is Fisher and her theories about rejection in romantic love; the documentary follows three New Yorkers who have recently been dumped.
"I have never seen a film capture that amount of pain and rethink how to show true rejection and loss," says Fisher. "That's much more interesting to me. The happiness is no big deal—it's great. But when you have been rejected, that is when people stalk, get clinical depression, kill somebody else, or kill themselves…they just lose it."