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Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love
ISBN: 0805069135

By Helen Fisher
Review by: Barbara Bamberger Scott


In case you were wondering who wrote the book of love, it was Helen Fisher, a noted anthropologist and author of New York Times Notable books, The First Sex and The Anatomy of Love. In Why We Love she displays a wry sense of humor to match her erudition and a writing style that makes words like “norepinephrine” fall trippingly off the page.

Norepinephrine, Fisher explains, is one of the big three chemicals that affect our ability to fall madly in love, our “compulsion to daydream, fantasize, muse, ponder, obsess about a romantic partner." Two other suspects in the crime of passion are serotonin and dopamine, and if these names sound familiar, it’s because we already know them as agents for elevating mood and energy. Combine these with a novel encounter – such as meeting a gorgeous woman at the middle of a hanging bridge (one of the remarkable experiments described in the book) -- and you may discover why fools fall in love.

Fisher has devoted much time in the pursuit of lovers – requited and buoyant, or those who have been spurned and are experiencing the rage of rejection. When she encounters a suitable subject -- someone in the throes of infatuation, or who’s just been dumped by a favored lover -- she asks them to hook up to what she once dubbed the Love-O-Meter, to see how weepy or excited they could get, then to an MRI for a scan of the brain areas that are affected by intense feeling.

Fisher and her colleagues scoured college campuses for people who had just fallen in or out of love, asking them to complete a survey and an MRI scan. They were invited to bring in cherished letters and photos to gaze at, and for a control, she interspersed the romantic fixations with periods of counting long numbers backwards by seven, an activity designed to cool even the fiercest ardor.

One recently cast-off female, no doubt feeling, in the words of Edna St Vincent Millay, like “a sodden thing bedrenched by tears and rain,” became convinced that Fisher’s test was a malicious torture. “She turned on the radiologist, accusing the astonished man of inserting the name ‘Tim’ into the MRI machine....she repeatedly heard Tim's name as she was looking at his photograph."

Fisher’s work is spiced with piquant quotes from all ages and climes, along with puppy dog tales, illustrating how the tendency towards a monogamous protected relationship evolved through animal species to humankind.

In matters of love, "Men tended to show more activity than women in brain regions associated with visual processing,” whereas women showed more activity in "brain regions associated with motivation and attention." Men can see a woman's productive ability – it’s written in the differential between waist and hip, a curve whose magic has held sway since prehistoric artists first began depicting the female form. But women must categorize and catalogue potential partners, assessing them for long-term security, bearing in mind the long childhood and adolescence of the human animal.

Not only does Fisher explore the meaning of romance, but she actually has a few pointers for those of us traveling the long and winding road between Homer’s “pulsing rush of longing” and what a 17th Century poet described as “a sickness full of woes, all remedies refusing.” One piece of practical advice: Do something novel, even dangerous, with your beloved. "Mysterious people are novel. And novelty is associated with elevated levels of dopamine - the neurotransmitter of romance." That’s why men were more likely to become smitten with a beautiful woman encountered on a hanging bridge, and less likely to remember the same woman encountered on a flat bridge.

Guys like sports and side by side intimacy, so sit next to him while he watches NASCAR. Women like chatter and face to face meetings, so look at her and talk – or shut up and listen – across the dinner table. And remember – this isn’t just pop psychology, this is science. For which we thank Ms Fisher and her hours of toil at the Love-O-Meter.

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