Helen Fisher: The Drive to Love

06 November 2019


“Since the heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I was made for you and I will not let you go,” declared Chang Po to his beloved Meilan(Yutang, 1954, p.73) The chinese still cry over this twelfth-century Chinese fable, “The Jade Goddess,” their version of Romeo and Juliet. “My beloved, the delight of my eyes”, exclaimed Inanna of her beloved Dumuzi in a Sumerian poem recorded some four thousand years ago (Wolkstein, 1991, p.51) An anonymous Kwakiutl Indian of southern Alaska recited these words in 1896: ” Fires run through my body – the pain of loving you”(Hamill, 1996)
Paris and Helen, Orpheus and Eurydice, Abelard and Eloise, Troilus and Cressida, Tristan and Iseult, Shiva and Sati, Layla and Majnun: thousands of romantic poems, songs, and stories come across the centuries from Europe, the Middle East, Japan, china, India, and every other society that has left written or oral records. In a survey of 166 varied cultures, anthropologists found evidence of romantic love in 147 (Jankowiak and Fischer, 1992) There were no negative data, in the remaining nineteen societies, scholars had simply failed to examine this aspect of people’s lives.
“What ’tis to Love?”Shakespeare asked in As You Like It. From the ancient Greeks to contemporary scholars, hundreds have offered theories about the components of love and styles of loving (Lee, 1988; Fehr, 1988; Aron and westbay 1996; Hatfield and sprecher, 1986; Critelli , Myers, ans Loos 1986; Hendrick and Hendrick, 1986; Zick 1970; Hazan and Shaver, 1987; Seternberg 1986) And for good reason: love has myriad variations. Nevertheless, neuroscientists believe that the basic human emotions and motivations arise from distint systems of neural activity, networks that derive from mammalian precursors ( davidson 1994; Panksepp 1998) THis article takes the neurological approach. it does not attemp to define one’s idiosyncratic ways of loving that develop in childhood, nor why an individual chooses one person rather than another.
Instead, it explores the underlying neural mechanisms associated with love, specifically romantic love.
Psychological studies indicate that romantic love is associated with a discrete constellation of emotions, motivations, and behaviors. Romantic love begins as an individual comes to regard another as special, even unique.
The lover then intensely focuses his or her attention on this preferred individual, aggrandizing the beloved’s better traits and overlooking or minimizing his or her flaws.
Lovers experience extreme energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings. They are goal-oriented and strongly motivated to win the beloved.
Adversity heghttens their passion, in what is known as the Romeo and Juliet effect or “frustation attraction” (Fisher 2004); Lovers become emotionally dependent on the relationship. They reorder their daily priorities to remain in contact with their sweetheart, and experience separation anxiety when apart.
And most feel powerful empathy for their amour; many report they would die for their beloved.

A striking property of romantic love is “intrusive thinking”. The lover thinks obsessively about the beloved. And, perhaps most central to this experience, the lover craves emotional union with his or her sweetheart. Plato wrote of this in The Symposium some twenty-five hundred year ago, saying the God of Love “lives in a state of need”; Love-smitten individuals feel intense sexual desire, as well as extreme possessiveness of the beloved. Yet their craving for emotional union supersedes their longing for sexual contact.
As a result, rejected lovers often go to extraordinary, inappropiate, even dangerous efforts to win back their sweetheart. Many spurned lovers suffer “abandonment rage” and depression as well, culminating in feelings of hopelessness, lethargy, resignation, and despair ( Fisher, 2004). Last, romantic love is involuntary, difficult to control, and impermanent(Tennov, 1979; Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986; Harris 1995). As Violetta sings in La Traviata Verdi’s tragic opera, “Let’s live for pleasure alone, since love, like flowers, swiftly fades.”

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