Feb 16 / Simcha

The Three Love Systems (H. Fisher)

loveHelen E. Fisher (b. 1947) is an American anthropologist (Rutgers University) and human behavior researcher of the biology of love and attraction.  She was hired as the chief scientific advisor to the Internet dating site, Chemistry.com, a division of Match.com. Fisher has conducted extensive research and written five books on the evolution and future of human sexuality, monogamy, adultery and divorce, gender differences in the brain, and the chemistry of romantic love.

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 Fisher maintains that humans have evolved three core brain systems for mating and reproduction:

  • Lust — the sex drive or libido
  • Romantic attraction — romantic love
  • Attachment — deep feelings of union with a long term partner.

Fisher maintains that for different people, love can start off with any of these three feelings.  Some feel strong sexual attraction, have sex first and then fall in love. Others fall head over heels in love, then climb into bed. Still others slowly grow deeply attached to someone they have known for months or years, and then feel drawn to have sex.  (In one survey by Ayala Malach-Pines, PhD, of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, only 11 percent of the 493 respondents said their long-term relationships started with “love at first sight.”)

Each of these three system is triggered as powerful chemicals flood the body, and their interplay can be tricky and complex. Having sex (intended as casual “hooking up”)  drives up dopamine in the brain and push us over the threshold toward falling in love. When flooded with dopamine, we “bury” the things we don’t like about our love object, focusing instead on what we adore. Intense energy, elation, mood swings, emotional dependence, separation anxiety, possessiveness, craving, and above all —obsessive thinking, take over the brain.  Orgasm brings on a rush of oxytocin and vasopressin — generating feelings of trust and attachment.

Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix of chemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body’s natural equivalent of heroin), induces an experience of relaxation, pleasure and satiety, and often a desire to bond with the love object.  (Fisher suggests that long-term use of serotonin-enhancing antidepressants, SSRIs, may undermine our natural process of attachment and our sex drive, by tampering with hormone levels in the brain.)

According to Fisher, each of the three systems triggered by these chemicals evolved to serve a different function, and together enable mating, pair-bonding and parenting:  

1.  The sex drive evolved to encourage us to seek a range of partners.

2.  Romantic love evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one at a time. This is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to hone in on a particular mate. Characterized by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection, this mental state may share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression.  Dr Fisher suggests that the actual behavioral patterns of those in love (such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one’s loved one) can even resemble obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

3.   Given that romantic love is not sufficiently stable and anchoring for long-term, cooperative child-rearing, attachment evolved to enable us to feel deep union to this person long enough to do so.  This state, according to Fisher, is characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union.

See also:   Helen Fisher’s TED talk

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Cultural and social factors, shared interests, and past (social and sexual) experiences naturally play a huge role in determining how, when and by whom our brains will be aroused.   It seems, too, that the path from arousal to the rewards of sex, love and attachment, require quite a bit of investment, attention and learning.