What’s love got to do with it?

2013-10-27 14:01

You may as well face it: you’re addicted to love – chemically, that is.

Biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher has interviewed and tested thousands of people around the world in her quest to understand how romantic love works.

Fisher has tested people who are in love, who have fallen out of love and who have had their hearts broken.

At the ninth Standard Bank/Palaeontological Scientific Trust Keynote Lecture at Wits on Tuesday, Fisher explained that her tests and interviews had led her to a spot at the base of the brain that may explain how romantic love works chemically.

It may sound more scientific than swoonworthy, but Fisher says “people live for love, they kill for love and they die for love”.

When you fall in love, Fisher explained to a rapt audience of just under 1 000 people, there’s increased activity at the base of the brain and the cells make dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone.

It’s no wonder people describe being in love as a high. Fisher says the same area is activated when the rush of a cocaine high hits.

“But romantic love is more than a cocaine high. It’s like someone is camping in your head,” said the research professor from Rutgers University in the US.

There are other hormones at play: oxytocin, which promotes feelings of love, social bonding and allows you to tolerate your significant other; and testosterone, which drives your libido.

The people she has interviewed say things like, “I can’t stop thinking about him or her” and “I would die for them”. The big question, of course, is why. Why do your hormones and impulses direct you to love the person you do?

“Most people have a list of traits they want their partner to have, but even if you walked into a room full of people who have all the qualities you want, you won’t necessarily fall in love with any of them. Why is this?” Fisher asked her audience.

Her answer is that there are four main groups of people: those driven by dopamine, the explorers; those driven by serotonin, the builders; those driven by testosterone, the directors; and those driven by oxytocin, the negotiators.

Most people, Fisher said, combined a little bit of everything.

Whatever’s dominant will draw you to your perfect match – so those driven by oxytocin, who are very trusting, big-picture thinkers, are drawn to their direct opposites, testosterone-driven individuals who are analytical, bold and at times uncompromising.

Those ruled by dopamine and serotonin tended to stick to their own kind, she said.

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