What happens to your brain during love? Is there such a thing as “alternative sex”? What are we wrong about male and female sexuality? The expert explains. VICTOR DE SCHWANBERG/Getty Images/RF Scientific Photo Library
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What happens to your brain during love? Is there such a thing as “alternative sex”? What are we wrong about male and female sexuality?
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Fisher is a biological anthropologist, chief scientific advisor to the dating site Match.com, and author of several books, including Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
She has written six books on human sexuality, gender differences in the brain, and how cultural trends shape our ideas about sex, love, and bonding. Fisher, in other words, spent a lot of time thinking about the role of sex and love in human life.
So I reached out to her to find out what she’s learned and how it’s undermining many of our traditional ideas about sexuality and gender.
I wanted to know what separates love from being in love and why she thinks there are three simple things you can do to maintain a happy relationship.
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It’s an interesting question. My colleagues and I recently put over 100 loved ones in a brain scanner to understand what was going on in their brains.
We found that in almost all cases there was activity in a small part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (or VTA). It appears that this brain system produces dopamine, a natural stimulator, and then sends that stimulator to many other areas of the brain.
It’s what gives you the focus, energy, drive and motivation to win life’s greatest prize: a mate.
And is the experience of love, at the brain level, different from the experience of sex or the feeling of attachment?
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Sex drive is mostly driven by testosterone in both men and women, but romantic love is driven by the dopamine system. I see romantic love as a primal urge that evolved millions of years ago to focus your sexual energy on one person and initiate intercourse.
Sex drive drives you to seek out a multitude of partners, but romantic love is about focusing your marital energy on one person at a time.
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So falling in love is like being on a constant shot of dopamine, and every time you see a person or touch them or think about them, you get a little hit?
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Dopamine drops – I love that term! I had not heard before; That’s a great way to put it. But dopamine hits happen even when you’re not with that person.
You may think of love as an intense obsession, but it’s actually an addiction. You think about them all the time; Own yourself sexually; You get butterflies in your stomach; You can read their emails and messages again and again.
But I say it’s addictive because we found that in addition to the activation of the dopamine system in the brain of loved ones, there is activity in another part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
This part of the brain is activated in all kinds of behavioral addictions – be it drugs or gambling, food or kleptomania. So this part of the brain is activated in people who have recently fallen in love and it really works like an addiction.
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It’s no coincidence, because when you have sex with someone and it’s pleasurable, it triggers the dopamine system in the brain. It can push you over the edge and fall in love.
And when you’re in a trance, oxytocin and vasopressin flood in. These neurochemicals are linked to the brain’s connective tissue.
So there are all these potential chemical triggers that can be activated when you have sex with someone whether it’s “casual” or not. About a third of people in a “friends with benefits” relationship have fallen madly in love with that person.
So casual sex is no coincidence: it can trigger these brain systems for feelings of romantic love and attachment.
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Exactly. If you’re on vacation and have natural obstacles you won’t see again, it’s probably safe. But otherwise you run the risk of falling in love, which can mess up your life in ways you’re not ready for.
So many. We think men want to have sex with everything that walks, but that’s not true. They are much more selective than people think.
I think we have also misunderstood that women are not interested in sex. Among people under 40, women seem to be just as promiscuous as men. College women have more sex than college men, mostly because while in college women can choose a location while men do not.
I have been telling women’s magazines for 30 years that men fall in love faster than women because they are more visible and love more often. Men are more willing to display love in public, it sounds romantic, but it’s not.
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This is often a form of protecting partners, a way of telling everyone that “she’s with me”. Men want to introduce the women they love to their friends and family first. Men also want to move quickly with the woman they love.
Men have far more intimate conversations with their girlfriends and wives than women have with their husbands and boyfriends because women have intimate conversations with their girlfriends and not necessarily with men.
Men are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide after a relationship ends. This is something that the press and the public really get wrong.
Wait, men are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide when a relationship fails? Do you have an explanation for that?
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That’s a really good question. I just have a guess. I don’t think anyone has come up with a good Darwinian explanation. Women turn to their networks. I mean, they will threaten to kill themselves, but often they don’t follow through, or they try to kill themselves and fail. But men do the work.
I think some of it is how differently men and women express their feelings. Women’s emotions always come out. We tend to express ourselves more emotionally.
People hide their emotions probably because over millions of years humans have not adapted to express their weakness or fear. Their job was to protect the team. Their job was to protect the woman and the family. Their job was to go out and kill very dangerous wild animals and bring home dinner.
Under these circumstances, expressing your fear, your anger, your surprise, your vulnerability is really inappropriate.
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Therefore, men are better at controlling their emotions, but they are more prone to what we call emotional flooding. Unlike women, they keep their anger inside, but eventually that anger builds up and explodes.
Love is love and I assume your data applies whether we’re talking about gay or straight couples, or gay or straight men and women, but I want to ask if you noticed any differences.
I have data from hundreds of gay men who fall in love as often as straight men. (As I mentioned, romantic love is a brain system like anger and fear, and everyone has this brain system – no matter who they are romantically involved with). But I don’t have data on whether gay men are equally likely to kill themselves after a breakup. I’ve never actually seen that data. But maybe there is.
I’m sure you’re disgusted by people who worry about reducing something as rich and complex as love to brain systems. What is your typical response to that concern?
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This basic brain physiology is only part of the experience. Since you asked me about the brain circuits involved in romantic love, I told you. This is not reductionist; I was just trying to clarify part A
System. I have spent my entire intellectual life dissecting the vast phenomena associated with romantic love. And basic brain structure certainly is
Knowing all the ingredients in a piece of chocolate cake, you can sit back and enjoy the cake. Love is like that. There is always magic in love. ”
Those who study the phobia system do not call themselves “reductionists.” But when people say love, they think it comes from other worlds. It doesn’t look like it. It is one of the most powerful brain systems that mankind has developed.
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People crave and live for love
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