#wcw Helen Fisher

helen fisher sex love all the feels

woman crush Wednesday: Dr. Helen Fisher

I first learned of anthropologist Helen Fisher's work during my Biological Foundations of Human Sexuality class in grad school.  To be completely honest, I assumed the entirety of the class would focus on the physiological functions related to sexuality - such as reproduction and arousal/orgasm.  I found myself being fascinated with the extensive research Fisher had done that attributed feelings of attraction, love, attachment and bonding to NEUROSCIENCE.  Read on, I promise it is super cool...

One of homies believes that us gals can blame all of our unrealistic expectations of love on Disney movies.  In her words, they really "fuck us up."  And I get it!  Fairy tales, rom coms, and Nicholas Sparks all perpetuate this idea that being or falling "in love" is this magical, unexplainable phenomenon without rhyme or reason.  This instantaneous magnetism with our one and only soulmate.  Star crossed lovers.  The recognition of our counterpoint in another.  Kismet.  Fate.  Destiny.  We're all searching for that spark!

And yo, I was a complete sap for this stuff.  A total romantic and admitted Disney fanatic.  

(you guys, did I just spit a verse? #beatbox "a total romantic and Disney fanatic!")

That is, until Helen Fisher and this class completely ruined it for me. Really!  I am a bit ashamed to admit that during this lecture, I struggled a bit to hold back my tears.  Even as a 27ish "adult" (always in quotes), I felt... I dunno, betrayal?  loss?  grief?  that these fanciful notions of love I held deep down in my core (the tears were an indication that they were way deeper than I had realized) were a sham.  So, if you're not interested in having me ruin that for you today, stop reading here (and maybe read this optimistic post instead!).  But, if you're ready for the consolation of reading some really rad nerd shit, continue on, my brave friend!  PS I was ultimately mesmerized by this stuff, and it wildly outweighed my blissful ignorance, so I recommend reading on...

Much of Fisher's work researched love and the brain by studying brain images of people who were in different stages of being "in love."  There were notable physical impacts of feelings associated with romantic love on the brain.  From her research, Fisher identified three interrelated emotion systems in the brain that drive how and who we "love": lust, attraction and attachment.  These systems, however, don't arbitrarily exist, but rather are the result of evolutionary needs.  Let's break them down: 

  • LUST: the "sex drive" evolved in order to motivate us to reproduce and grow the population back in the early days of the human species 
  • ATTRACTION: the inclination to focus our attention on a preferred partner is driven by our pursuit of individuals who would make good mates for offspring production.  I'll talk more about this below, but we are biologically predisposed to find certain individuals attractive based on how well our potential offspring would survive.  Evolutionally, this was important for survival of the species.
  • ATTACHMENT: feelings of comfort and security with a partner, which first evolved as offspring were surviving longer.  Feelings of attachment allowed humans to "tolerate" being together long term in order to rear and protect said offspring.  (fun fact: other species similarly attach in order to rear their young, but most do so only through the offspring's infancy... how long do you think that would be in human terms?  would you be surprised to know that 4 years is the average duration of marriages that end in divorce worldwide?  aka long enough to attach and raise offspring out of infancy? science!)

Almost kinda crazy how much it makes sense, right?  If the ATTRACTION system is what focuses our attention a specific individual (think about that feeling you get when you have a crush, the butterflies in your tummy, that "chemistry") based on how good of a mating partner someone would be, how does that translate to the present dating scene?  Fisher identified many biological characteristics that drive attraction.  I'll give you a snippet, but if you want to learn about all of them, I highly encourage you to read her book "Why We Love" - one of my favorite reads.  

Sex, Love & All the Smells

Have you ever found yourself oddly attracted to your lover's B.O.?  Wanted to snuggle right up into their armpit at night, even though they haven't showered since morning?  Preferred to make out before the brushing of teeth, ripe with morning breath?  Feel the lust pangs down deep in your loins after they've been working out and are covered in sweat?  Have you noticed, however, you haven't felt that way with everybody, just your person?  (well, probs personS plural, but not everyone)  Fisher would explain that with science.  Just like animals, we are subconsciously able to respond to the scent signaling chemicals (called pheromones) in others.  When we sniff someone who is "genetically complementary" (likely to produce successful offspring if our genes were to mix with their genes), our brain interprets those scents as pleasurable.  When we smell the breath or body funk from someone who is not genetically complementary, our brains interpret that as displeasurable.  Follow your noses, friends!

Taste, too!

The genes that control your immune system can be detected in your saliva, especially after extended kissing sessions (ow ow!).  If those genes are super similar between two people, there is a lower chance that a pregnancy would be carried full term.  Just like our subconscious is able to smell a good genetic match for reproduction, it is also able to taste a good genetic match.  If you've ever sucked face with someone and even though they were an ok kisser, you just didn't find yourself into it, it may have been because their genes were too similar to yours, you would have had a hard time producing offspring, and therefore you BIOLOGICALLY were less attracted to them.  So obviously this is where I encourage LOTS of making out to test the genetic compatibility waters, wink wink! ;)

A disclaimer, though...

I've got a Debbie Downer, unfort.  Research has shown that hormonal birth control (i.e. the pill, patch, ring, implant, shot, some IUDs) can decrease or eliminate the sensitivity of these unconscious detection systems.  This means that a) if you've been on birth control forrrrevvvverrrr and commit to someone without ever having not been on it, you may find yourself less attracted to them when you do stop taking it; and b) there is a higher risk of pairing with someone who is not as genetically complementary as our biologic makeup desires.  I haven't read anything correlating this to an increase in birth defects, miscarriages, pregnancy complications, etc., but the theoretical implication exists.  

In conclusion, even though I felt a loss in losing my fairy tale love, I felt like I had gained so much more from Dr. Fisher's insights.  As she puts it in the introduction of "Why We Love"...

"'What is love?'... I have tried to answer this seemingly unanswerable question.  Several things motivated me.  I have loved and won and loved and lost; I have certainly experienced that this passion is a foundation stone of human social life, that just about every human being who has ever lived has felt the ecstasy and the despair of romantic love.  Perhaps most important, a clearer understanding of this whirlwind may help people find and sustain this glorious passion."

So hopefully this nerd post will help you all go out there and find and sustain glorious passion!  If you want to learn more, watch Dr. Fisher's TED Talk about her research (she's done a few others too - all worthwhile!) or check out "Why We Love" or any of her other books - they're all easy reads!

Any other bad ass babes you guys are crushing on lately?  Looking for boss bitch inspo for upcoming posts!

colby zongol