Helen Fisher: How Does Love Affect The Brain? Helen Fisher says love is a biological drive and a survival mechanism. She discusses the science of love and how much control we have over who we love, how we love, and whether that love lasts.

Helen Fisher: How Does Love Affect The Brain?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about Falling In And Out Of Love.

HELEN FISHER: We are playing with one of the most powerful brain systems that ever evolved. I mean, this is a survival mechanism. It evolved millions of years ago. And I'm not surprised that people suffer in love.

RAZ: This is Helen Fisher.

FISHER: I'm a biological anthropologist, and I study love.

RAZ: And Helen is actually the chief science advisor to match.com and one of the country's leading experts on love.


RAZ: All right. Let me just ask you about love. I mean, I know - I don't mean to sound reductive. It's much more complicated. But can we say there's a place in our brain where love or feelings of love resides?

FISHER: There's a place in our brain where all feelings reside. Every time you think something, do something, feel something, there's something going on in the brain. I came to believe, really, that we've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive, second is feelings of intense romantic love, and the third is feelings of deep attachment. And I became quite convinced that all three resided in the brain and that if I looked, I could find some of the brain circuitry of romantic love and feelings of attachment.

RAZ: And according to Helen, romantic love and attachment aren't even feelings.

FISHER: They're drives.

RAZ: Meaning they fulfill a biological need.

FISHER: In fact, the basic brain region that generates the feelings of intense romantic love - that factory lies at the base of the brain right near a factory that orchestrates thirst and hunger. Thirst and hunger keep you alive today. Romantic love enables you to focus your mating energy on a particular individual and drive your DNA into tomorrow. So I and my brain-scanning partner Lucy Brown have come to believe that romantic love is a survival mechanism.

RAZ: So if love is primarily a drive - right? - it's driven by biology, right? Like, how much agency do we actually have in that process?

FISHER: Well, I think that we have a lot of agency. We're constantly making choices. I mean, you know, we tend to fall in love with somebody who has the same socioeconomic background, same general level of intelligence, same general level of good looks. But you can walk into a room, and everybody's from your background and good looks, and you don't fall in love with all of them. We make choices.

And, you know, we carry in our head what I call a love map, an unconscious list of what you're looking for in a partner. And when the timing is right and somebody comes by who fits within that general perspective of who you're looking for, you can instantly trigger that brain circuitry for romantic love and be off to the races.

RAZ: I mean, it's amazing because there is both - I mean, there's this - there's a drive. Our brains, as you say, are smart, and they figure out the person that it thinks we will be most compatible with. But then we also have agency, too. Like, we also can engineer it.

FISHER: There's no question about it. The - one of the problems when you - once you've fallen madly in love, basic brain regions, like, with decision-making begin to shut down. And so you can overlook a lot. Oh, he's so cute. It doesn't matter he has a wife. He'll divorce her. Oh, she's just so charming. She'll get over her anger problem. So what you got to do is make your choices just like you said. You've got to use that agency before you fall in love.

You know, if you begin to fall for somebody who you know is lying to you, the way out is through the door. We've evolved a huge cerebral cortex. We can overcome our drives. I mean, people have a drive to eat sugar. We can say, no, thank you. But you've got to realize who you are. Understand your assets and your defects and cognitively think of work-arounds. We can do this.


RAZ: Does our brain chemistry make it harder to fall out of love than to fall in love?

FISHER: It's extremely difficult to do. You know, we - I and my colleagues have put 15 people who had just been rejected in love into a brain scanner, and we ended up finding that those people who were still madly in love with somebody who had just dumped them - they still showed activity in this ventral tegmental area, a little factory near the base of the brain that pumps out the dopamine. It gives you that elation. We still found activity in a brain region linked with feelings of deep attachment to the partner.

You don't stop loving somebody just because they've dumped you. We found activity in three brain regions linked with addiction, particularly the primary brain region - it's called the nucleus accumbens - that is associated with all of the addictions. So you still crave the person. And we even found activity in the brain region linked with physical pain - not only the distress that goes along with pain, but physical pain.

So, you know, the brain is really in overdrive, and to conquer all of that, you really have to treat it as an addiction. Throw out the cards and letters. Don't write. Don't call. Don't show up. Assemble what you know about the situation. Create a story. And after you've built that story, then you can throw it out. And finally, of course, you put your life back together, and you move on. And matter of fact - we've proven that, in the brain, when we put these rejected people into the brain scanner, we ended up finding that those people who had been rejected quite a while ago - let's say several months as opposed to several days - we find less and less activity in this brain region linked with attachment. As time goes by, feelings of attachment and probably romantic love also begin to decline. So time does heal.


RAZ: So Helen, my last question for you is about sort of the science of love, right? I'm wondering, like, even with all of the advances in technology and all of our abilities to measure brain activity, are we still at a place where we've just scratched the scientific surface?

FISHER: We've just scratched the scientific surface. But we've come a long way. I mean, you know, when I was growing up, people believed that romantic love was part of the supernatural.

RAZ: Yeah.

FISHER: We've proven that it's not, that this is a very specific brain system, that it is triggered under certain circumstances, that you can get over it if you treat it as an addiction and do certain things. We have more and more cognitive control over this powerful survival mechanism

RAZ: That's Helen Fisher. She's a biological anthropologist. You can see all of Helen's talks at ted.com.

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