How to find true love
This woman has brought hope to countless singletons by claiming that finding love is far simpler than we think. She even has the brain scans to prove it. She talks to Bryony Gordon
Published 06/02/2010 | 05:00
Helen Fisher believes in love at first sight. She is a woman of reason, a biological anthropologist with more than 30 years of academia behind her, and yet to her it makes perfect sense.
"Oh sure," she says with a smile. "You can be instantly scared. You can be instantly happy. So why can't you be instantly romantically in love? I think, when it happens, it's because you are ready to fall in love. Someone walks in who fits within your love map -- they are the right shape, the right size, [with] the right kind of background. You have a conversation for a few minutes, the person flirts with you, smiles, expresses real interest in you and BOOM," -- she claps her hands together in delight -- "you're off to the races."
Dr Fisher knows a lot about love. What she doesn't know about it is, perhaps, not worth finding out about. She has devoted almost her entire career to working out why, whom and how we love. And she believes that her findings could help steer the ever-increasing number of single people through the minefield that is modern dating.
And so it is that I find myself sitting in Fisher's flat on the Upper East Side of New York, just one of countless singletons to have passed through her door in the hope of understanding where they keep going wrong. Her bookshelves, crammed with scientific tomes, are testament to the very different approach that she takes to the dating game -- it is intellectual and scholarly rather than airy-fairy, self-help flim-flam.
I have read The Rules, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's seminal dating guide -- which advises never to call; basically to act like a Stepford wife -- and I found it old-fashioned and restrictive. He's Just Not That Into You was hopelessly negative and depressing. Fisher's fifth book on the subject of love, Why Him? Why Her? (Oneworld), is more constructive, more interesting, more based in reality. Put simply, it centres on Fisher's theory that our heads, or at least our brains, rule our hearts far more than we are led to believe.
"I have always been interested in how you can walk into a room and there will be 40 people there and you are immediately drawn to one," says Fisher. "Similarly, that you can be set up on a date and just know immediately that it isn't going to work. You know: he's too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too old, too young, too pink, too green."
When we talk about having chemistry with someone, it may be that it is more literal than we think.
Fisher and her colleagues at the Center for Human Evolution Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey have scanned the brains of about 60 people who claimed to be in love. They discovered increased activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain and other parts associated with motivation, pleasure and heightened focus. She has also studied the behavioural patterns of six million men and women who have taken part in a questionnaire on the dating site chemistry.com, and through this extensive research she has worked out that all of us conform to one of four personality types, which are controlled by different chemicals in the brain. These chemicals mould us, and cause us to be attracted to people who complement our personality types (see panel). There is the Explorer, a sensation seeker ruled by dopamine; the Builder, a respecter of authority driven by serotonin; the Director, analytical and ruled by testosterone; and the Negotiator, intuitive and fired by oestrogen. Negotiators need to connect with others on a deeply personal level, are very trusting and good at talking.
Fisher says that she is a Negotiator, though she sometimes veers into Explorer territory; she guesses immediately that I am an Explorer. "Negotiators and Explorers get on -- they are both quite emotionally expressive," she says. "But I was just doing a radio interview and I could tell that the person I was speaking to was a Builder. I'm a scientist, not a soothsayer, but I have got to the point now in my research where my reaction to people is often quite accurate."
Fisher believes that understanding who you are is vital to understanding to whom you are attracted. Builders tend to go for other Builders, and Explorers for other Explorers, whereas Directors and Negotiators tend to go for each other. "I think Nicolas Sarkozy is a Director. Carla [Bruni-Sarkozy] is definitely a Negotiator. Oh, goodness. She's soft, sweet, verbally skilled, whereas her husband is like a bull in a china shop."
For Fisher, the most interesting aspect of all this is why these patterns have evolved. But surely our experiences in life shape how and whom we love? Doesn't nurture have as much to do with it as nature, if not more?
"I can't say it's entirely hard-wired," Fisher says, sipping strong black coffee. "We have this huge cerebral cortex with which we make decisions, yet our life experiences play an enormous role in who we are. But our temperament -- whether we are curious, stubborn, aggressive, agreeable -- has a real biological basis to it. Experiences shape the brain, but the brain shapes the way we view experiences, too."
Fisher was born in Connecticut in 1945, one of identical twins, a fact that fired her interest in why we are alike and, of course, why we are different. (For the record, she and her sister share the same personality type.) She has no children but was married briefly in her early 20s and has had several long-term relationships since. Her partner of 30 years recently died of throat cancer; she wells up talking about him. "I started to cry this morning. He was 21 years older than me. I found him endlessly fascinating."
Fisher may be in her 60s, but she has the spirit of someone much younger. She has been dating again, though her research leads her to believe that she won't pursue the people she has been seeing.
"I've run into two men recently with whom I have had splendid times talking, but I'm not attracted to them and they're not attracted to me, and that is because they are both Builders. One of them is a big man-about-town in New York. He is charming, he is funny, he is my age and single, but I just know that, down the road, we're going to go to the same restaurant every night, and every weekend we are going to have to do dinner parties." She smiles again. "And I can tell you now that I am not a dinner-party girl."
Over the years Fisher has seen many shifts behind the way that we date, and two in particular. "The first is that we are living much, much longer," she says. "You get cougars in their 40s wearing miniskirts -- we have extended the years that we can express our sexuality, have affairs, get divorced, remarry and so on.
"The second one is women piling into the job market. I think that has dramatically changed sexual relations. Young women today do not marry the men they met in high school, or even the ones they go out with at college, because they do not need to.
"In my day the only real career path that you had was to get married. So we have extended adolescence in that way," she adds.
I talk to Fisher about the problems facing twentysomething women like me -- worries about finding men and keeping them and the concern that we will work too hard professionally and wake up one morning and find ourselves lonely and childless. It is estimated that by next year there will be 16 million single men and women in Britain. I say that's a lot of people failing to find love.
And yet Fisher thinks that there are many reasons to be positive. "Do you know that the most current data is that men, in America anyway, are more eager to marry than women? They actually fall far more quickly in love than us. And I think that just as we come to understand women more, we will come to understand men more, too."
Far from thinking that my generation is in a pickle, Fisher says she is really quite optimistic about how relationships are changing. "For a start, you have internet dating. It's the newest way to do the same old thing, but it's great in that you can learn about the person before you meet them. I mean, that old thing about meeting people in bars. Whoever met someone in a bar and then stayed with them? You know nothing about them; if they are even single or not."
Fisher thinks that the choices we have now are incredible. "One hundred years ago you had to follow the rules and get married very early, and I think I probably would have made a hash of that. But today you are allowed to be yourself, you can pick the man you want, you can choose not to have children. For thousands of years women did not have these choices."
Fascinatingly, Fisher says that we are merely returning to the way we were when we lived in hunter/gatherer societies. "Women then were as sexually, socially and economically powerful as men because everyone worked. The double-income family was the rule. Women tended to have two to three husbands, and trial marriages, which is essentially living with someone as we do now. It was only with the invention of the plough 10,000 years ago that women began staying at home. All we are doing now is shedding thousands of years of our agrarian past."
Fisher even goes as far as to say that we are living in "an age of romance". I find this surprising, given divorce rates, though she points out that the two are not mutually exclusive. "I think you will find that with divorce will come happier remarriages.
"There was a study in the States where people were asked: 'Would you marry somebody who had everything you looked for in a partner, but whom you were not in love with?' Ninety-one per cent of women and 86pc of men said no. So we want to marry for love. That's an age of romance," says Fisher.
So I shouldn't worry then? "There is every reason to worry and be focused on this, because you are searching for life's greatest prize: the right mating partner. What did Darwin say? 'If you have four children and I have no children, then you live on and I die out.' So the game of love matters.
"But it is going to happen. It will happen for everyone. You are going to find him, and, when you do, please call Helen Fisher and tell her."