fall/winter, '06-07 , no. 8
Romancing the Science
by Amy Gilliland
A review of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher; Henry Holt and Company, 2004.
“I don’t know whether to be enraged to find out that I’m like everyone else or relieved that I finally understand what’s happened to me.” The words leaped out from my student’s paper — her desire to be unique in her passion conflicted with her quest for a deeper understanding of her own experience of love. This comment exemplifies one of the strong responses to Fisher’s latest book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Fisher tells the story of her latest quest to understand our behavior through hormone and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies of the human brain. She invites us to join in by quoting centuries of poetry, song and literature and describing animal mating behaviors that mimic human attraction rituals. After detailing her own research, she relates it to other literature in the sexuality and relationship field, all with the intent of supporting the premises of evolutionary psychology. In the last section, Fisher uses her research conclusions to offer advice about how to make a relationship last or to get over being jilted.
While her research is impeccable and her story logical, the tone of the book is romantic — even whimsical in parts. Fisher’s voice is strongest as she describes her own research, less so as she describes others’ studies. The sections of the book that I find most disconcerting are where she attributes our societal construction of love to our evolutionary roots, thus confirming the current patriarchal portrayal of gender roles as normative. There is no questioning about whether the evolutionary egg or the constructionist chicken came first — it is always the egg.
Lest I be misunderstood, I like this book. It has flaws but it is useful in explaining current evolutionary psychological thought as well as illustrating how our hormones and biology disrupt our usually emotionally and mentally balanced lives. Fisher brings an aura of detachment about the usually overwhelming experience of falling in love. Using Helen Fisher’s Why We Love in an undergraduate human sexuality class has enabled me to dialogue about it so that we all share a common understanding of the experience. The conversation, while pertaining to their individual lives, is not a personal discussion. Making our passion a scientific matter means we can separate ourselves from it, look at it under a lens. We can poke it with a stick to see if it bites.
Unfortunately, her attitude towards evolutionary psychological theory doesn’t have the same level of detachment. No criticisms are included and the attitude is simply, “Here is the story of why you fall in love and behave the way you do. It is all due to natural selection — an impartial process of nature.” Although Fisher quotes heavily from literature and the arts throughout the book, she does not see that the social construction of love might influence her findings or the piecing together of her story. In addition, in her desire to make this work and line of thinking accessible to the general public, she sacrifices some rigorous scientific scrutiny. Being somewhat familiar with the literature, I felt comfortable with most of her summaries and connections. However there were other areas where there is disagreement and conflict among researchers, but this was not mentioned. For example, she gives great credence to Singh’s 1991 conclusions about male preference for a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio in females without any reference to the controversy surrounding the validity of his sample and the contradictory research that has been published since (Pederson and Miller, 2002). It is another evolutionary egg.
In the first and last chapters, Fisher labors to situate her brain research on love, attraction, and infatuation within the context of our society’s cumulative construction of these experiences. The beginning chapter references literature, music and artistic longing in a way that resembles one of Dagwood’s famous sandwiches. There are so many references that almost none of the individual flavors are memorable. However, the overall impact is considerable: falling in love is an overwhelming experience that spirals a normally rational human into panic. It is a loss of control so complete that some hope never to repeat it again. Fisher does us a favor by listing all the symptoms of falling in love: changing priorities, mood swings, yearning for emotional union, intrusive thinking and so on. Sorting and labeling these behaviors demystifies them. Our control can be restored…somewhat.
Next, Fisher lists our observations of animal mating behavior with the intent of making connections to our own processes. She involves readers in her characterizations of bats, beavers, and bluebirds, all the while portraying the evolutionary roots of their behaviors as similar to our own. One of the most memorable is the story of elephants Bad Bull and Tia. Tia had remained reluctant to mate until she saw, or more than likely smelled, Bad Bull arrive. “Tia wanted Bad Bull the moment he swaggered into view — with ooze dripping from his cheeks, urine streaming down his legs, and foam spraying from his penis sheath.” In going on to describe their activities, Fisher anthropomorphizes them to the point of making the average reader comfortable with the allegory between humans falling in love and Tia and Bad Bull’s mating rituals. Her chapter is entitled, “Animal Magnetism: Love among the Animals,” which leaves little doubt as to her point of view. Some of her other choices are edited to support her beliefs about their meanings, especially her conclusions about the meaning of certain dog behaviors.
While I admire Fisher’s taking a strong stand for evolutionary psychology’s use of animal behavior as evidence of the roots of human behavior and making it available to casual readers, I don’t care for her strategy of not elucidating any criticisms or disagreements. Perhaps it would have taken away from the tone of romantic fantasy that pervades most of the book. However her lack of commentary provides an opportunity in the classroom to discuss these issues and present the criticisms of evolutionary psychology’s animal behavior arguments. It’s my opportunity to scramble the eggs.
In the next few chapters, Fisher involves the reader in her research on the hormones of love and her fMRI studies of the human brain in love and when rejected in love. Her descriptions are exquisite: logical, understandable and readable. She presents her quest in a way that invites the reader to be a companion to her own curiosity and to her research choices. One of Fisher’s major contributions is her delineation of the lust, attraction, and attachment systems as separate. Each one has their own hormones, their own purposes, and their own evolutionary origins. They function separately from one another although they may overlap at times. You may hook up with someone in a casual sexual encounter through an expression of the lust system, whose strategy is to have offspring with multiple partners. Sometimes you may fall in love and end up focusing on them as a potential long-term mate, which is the strategy of the attraction system. However these two strategies are not necessarily correlated as they are two separate biobehavioral systems. Through the attraction system, we expound a great deal of metabolic energy to pursue one mate. Once we are bonded to that mate, the attraction hormones of increased dopamine and decreased serotonin will eventually reach a normative level, and the attachment hormones of oxytocin and vasopressin will be more important.
Midway between explaining her research on the brains of people in love and people who have been rejected by their chosen lover, Fisher works to connect her research to those of others through the patina of evolutionary psychology. As expressed earlier, the reader is dependent on Fisher’s criteria for inclusion of appropriate studies and evidence. Her tone again becomes romantic and lacks any sense of criticism for her evolutionary point of view. She tells the stories of the supposed relationships of australopithecines that are pure fiction. “To court, these australopithecines forebears must have depended on their status in the group, their chimplike wits and charm.” Like many evolutionary psychologists, she makes the assumption that current hunter and gatherer societies are the same as they would have been tens of thousands of years ago — that in fact, their evolution stopped and became static. She assumes that the behavior today of many traditional societies reflects our roots and that all other human societies have evolved except hunter-gatherer or traditional ones. This flies in the face of what we know about human beings, our use of language, self-awareness and ability to change our circumstances based on the passing on of knowledge.
But this chapter is Fisher’s opportunity to offer evidence about why we developed an attraction system to find a particular mate; and why we would drop that particular mate and seek a new one every four years. Based on the available evidence Fisher presents, it is an interesting conclusion. There isn’t much science there, and a lot of interpretation but at least some of it is honestly portrayed as interpretation.
She returns to her brain scan studies, this time of people who have been rejected by their beloved. Once again she is in her element, and we are able to feel her participant’s angst and see her clear interpretations of their behavior from their scans. Examining passion from this other perspective illuminates and normalizes the human experience of being the one not chosen. She offers chemical explanations for stalking, battering, even suicide, although not in a way to excuse these behaviors. When she sticks to the evidence, our understanding of ourselves and others is illuminated. However, when she returns to the cloak of evolutionary psychological theory, it becomes more clouded and murky.
Perhaps the weakest area of the book is the second to last chapter where Fisher gives advice to people who wish to make romance last. Meditation, exercise, decreasing use of antidepressants when possible and other conventional solutions are espoused. She recommends talk therapy when needed. Yawn. At one point, Fisher utilizes her research conclusions on hormones of passion to advise that long-term partners seek out activities that would also stimulate those hormones. She recommends couples do exciting things together, activities that involve a perceived risk to stimulate adrenaline and norepinephrine. She also recommends that couples have sex that involves the emotional intimacy of revealing one’s self and trying a new sexual practice — venturing into the unknown through sex will involve the hormones of all three systems. This seems to me to be excellent advice for couples to try some alternative sexual practices but Fisher stops short of this specific suggestion.
Overall, Fisher does an admirable job of making her research accessible and available to the average reader. She writes her results using evolutionary psychology to explain her findings, which also makes those popular ideas more available to a wider audience. However my main criticism is that other people’s research is construed as supporting her theory, without any of the controversies also elucidated. It expounds a skewed point of view that does not allow readers to see that not everyone agrees with Fisher’s rosy presentation. I enjoy my lectures and homework dialogue with undergraduate students about falling in love and Fisher’s findings. For many it is one of the first times that social science research is accessible, personal and has an immediate impact on their lives. Why We Love offers a level of involvement with the material that is lacking in many other research assignments. No matter what our age or social background, we all fall in love. And now Helen Fisher has let us know why. <
Amy L. Gilliland, M.S., CD (DONA) is a PhD candidate in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has attended women and families in childbirth as a doula for almost twenty years and has been a doula trainer for almost ten years. On the part-time faculty of Madison Area Technical College, she primarily teaches human sexuality courses. She is completing her AASECT certification. One of her (currently) unpublished projects is on women's subjective experiences of female ejaculation.
"My career path has involved being in the midst of intimate relationships and intensely personal experiences of the people I work with: mothers and fathers, parents and babies; partners and lovers. While doing this work, I have received a graduate certificate in Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology; conducted research on the attachment needs of laboring mothers; and begun a theory of why the continuous support of a doula has significant effects on obstetrical outcomes. Sex and birth are intimately linked and not just because one is a possible outcome of the other. I'm privileged to be in a position where the two intersect and to observe and study them both."
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