What is this thing called love?

That was the opening question on February 18th, during the second installation of Illahee’s series on The Nature of Desire.

The question wasn’t posed by the evening’s featured speaker, “love expert” Helen Fisher. It wasn’t even asked.

It was sung, by vocalist Valerie Day, accompanied by Darrell Grant on piano.

Some non-scientific definitions: a temporary insanity curable by marriage; the triumph of imagination over intelligence; the only game not called on account of darkness; and, “if love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?”

And after Valerie and Darrell sang their questions about love, and teased us with some answers, with the help of neuroscientist Larry Sherman and graphic story characters Bob and Alice (and Ted and Carol), Helen responded.

Love isn’t a thing; it’s four things. Or rather it’s the manifestation of four brain systems.

But first she assured us that love is real. Real enough for the Sun King of Tikal, Jasaw Chan K’awiil, to build dual temples for himself and his wife in 720 AD, so that they would each be bathed in each other’s sunrise and sunset shadows at every equinox, as they still are, thirteen hundred years later.

Around the world people still live for love, die for love, kill for love, brew love potions, sing love songs, and write love poems. Evidence of romantic love has been found in every culture that anthropologists examined back to 2036 BC.

Dr. Fisher has looked at love from many angles. In her most recent work, she compared forty-nine people madly in love, of which seventeen were still in love after seven months, fifteen had been rejected, and seventeen were still in love after twenty-one years.

From a biological perspective love is manifested as three distinct behaviors for mating and reproduction: lust, powered by testosterone, and evolved to get you out there to meet a range of partners; romantic love, a dopamine-based set of behaviors evolved to get you to focus on a mate; and attachment, powered by serotonin, which allows you to tolerate your mate long enough to raise children.

These brain systems are connected. But the tightness of that connection can vary. It’s possible to be attached to one person, feel deep romantic love for another, and have interest in sex with multiple people, simultaneously.

Romantic love is the most powerful. People don’t die for sex, but they do for love.

We tend to pair up with people of similar interests, values, intelligence, attractiveness and socioeconomic status, but in a room full of similar people, you fall in love with one and not the rest. Why?

Dr. Fisher has administered a simple test to seven million people via chemistry.com, and some very clear patterns emerge.

First, she finds that four general brain chemistry systems are common to humans, but for most of us, one or two of them appear more dominant than the rest. Second, she finds that certain types consistently chose and get along with each other.

First the types:

The explorer: (dopamine-based) born free, spontaneous, sexual, manic, unreflective, opportunistic, socially skilled, clever, comfortable in their skin.
Examples: Angelina Jolie, Helen Fisher.

The builder: (serotonin dominant) traditional, cautious, networking, managerial, fact-oriented, detail-oriented, conscientious, persistent, loyal, religious.
Examples: George Bush, Gordon Brown, Colin Powell.

The director: (testosterone-based) tough-minded, practical, competitive, emotionally detached, rule-based systems, technical skills, music/spatial skills. Examples: John McCain, Hilary Clinton, Sully Sullenberger.

The negotiator: (estrogen and oxytosin – based) sees big picture, synthesizer, imagination, linguistic skills, people skills, nurturing, tactful, trusting.
Examples: Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Lorrie Sullenberger

Now, we’re not just “one type,” it’s just that most of us tend more strongly to one or two of these types.

On to the second point. Certain types seem to be more compatible than others. Explorers get along with explorers. Builders get along with builders. Directors get along with negotiators. The other combinations – not so much.
After we get through the initial “funnel of love” (too tall, too short, too this, too that… you’re out) it comes down to whether we have compatible chemistry.

What about the long term?
Explorers paired with explorers are going to have fun, but may have problems with not planning, addiction, and the general mercurial nature of their relationship.

A team of two builders is going to be cautious, frugal, orderly, and loyal, but will fight over mopping the floor (both think there’s just one way to do this); they’ll bicker, but they’ll have a long stable marriage.

The director / negotiator pair generally has complimentary characteristics (they will have good conversations), but problems will arise when the negotiator wants more out of the director.

Fisher’s observation about the “Mars/Venus” duality? Women get intimate from face-to-face talking. Men get intimacy from side-by-side doing. For example, women are often the ones who get face-to-face with babies, imparting early language and social skills (wouldn’t you know it, female babies respond strongly to faces, where as male babies respond to a blinking light as strongly as they do to a face). Men, on the other hand, can spend all afternoon watching the Super Bowl together, never look at each other, and feel they really connected.

The problem comes when we try to swivel side-by-siders to interact with face-to facers.

Some questions for Dr. Fisher:
Q: How does this new understanding of character and personality fit with Enneagrams, Meyers Briggs and other systems?
A: The nine Enneagrams fit neatly within the four brain chemistry types, as do ancient Greek systems, Native American animal types, Jungian psychology, and so on. We’ve merely identified the biology behind what people have known for 2500 years.

Q: How are the different types distributed?
A: More men are directors. The same proportion of men and women are builders and explorers. Type distribution varies between countries. And some questions don’t work in certain countries. Germans could not handle the statement: it’s important to respect authority. The French didn’t understand the statement: it’s important to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

Q: Which animals love?
A: All of them. That is, they all have favorites. We call it mate choice, sexual selection, etc. The brain system for sexual attraction evolved from previous animals, just like the brain system for fear. You find similar chemical systems in sheep, prairie voles and on and on.

Q: Do these chemistry patterns and compatibility hold for gays?
A: Yes, the same patterns occur in gay and straight people.

Q: Does inherited brain chemistry determine these four types, or does society determine types, which then influence chemistry?
A: We see a lot of these differences long before culture has a chance to influence brain chemistry. We distinguish between character (what you grew up with) and temperament (what you inherited). Biology and culture really go together.

Q: Can you have intense chemistry but not be compatible as mates?
A: Many people say, “My marriage was a failure.” But was it? If the person was married long enough to produce children and raise them past a certain age, then evolutionarily, it was a success.

Q: What are the moral ramifications of taking personality-altering chemicals? Can we take drugs to be more of a builder than an explorer?
A: One hundred million prescriptions are written every year, mostly for serotonin boosters. When you drive up serotonin, you kill off dopamine (romantic love) so it’s hard to find a mate. Anti-depressants kill love. One man we’ve talked with fell in love, began taking anti depressants, fell out of love with his beloved, split up, then stopped taking the pills and fell back in love. He won his beloved back by buying all the roses in a flower shop, showing up at her place and explaining, “I think it was the pills, will you take me back?” She did.

Q: This lecture series is supposed to circle back to environment, so what’s the link between all this brain chemistry stuff and why we can’t save the earth?
A: Our ancestors lived in trees, where they could drop whatever they were through with to the ground and moved on. We have a long heritage of littering, and not respecting our surroundings because we’ve moved on, unlike “den animals” that take care of their surroundings. But we can change the rules. In hunter-gatherer societies the real way you change behavior is by creating taboos. We’ve done the same thing. For example, you can’t just walk into a person’s house and smoke, even though there is no law against it.

Q: What about pseudo love? Things that take the place of love?
A: If you don’t have your sweetie near you, you find a replacement. For romantics it’s poetry. For others it’s novels. For the show-me types (builders?) it’s pornography. There are lots of country western songs about sex, and a huge amount of music, poetry about romantic love around the world.
But about attachment? Nothing! Why? Attachment is calm; you don’t get out of bed at 3 AM to frantically compose about attachment. Literature and art reflect the dopamine system, which is associated with creativity. Most of our songs and creative endeavors about love are dopamine driven.

Q: What about unrequited love?
A: When you are in love with somebody and they don’t like you, that barrier just intensifies the brain system – it elevates the dopamine even higher. (See the previous question about song writing.)

Dr. Fisher closed with this observation:

I’ve been asked if what I know about love has ruined it for me. And I answer by saying that you can know every ingredient in chocolate cake, but when you sit down and eat that chocolate cake it’s still delicious. All my work has expanded my empathy for others in the world. I look into baby carriages, and think, “boy, are you in for it.” What I know about love hasn’t ruined it for me. No matter what scientists discover, there will always be magic to love.


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