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February 12, 2004 - Helen Fisher: 'Why We Love' - 2004-02-11

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: February 12, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- enough about politics, today we talk about love!

RS: We were searching for a topic for Valentine's Day -- it's this Saturday, you know. Then our friend Ali in Iran happened to tell us about the newest book by one of his favorite American authors, anthropologist Helen Fisher.

AA: It contains the findings of her research to identify the areas of the brain that "light up" – or become neurologically more active -- when a person is madly in love.

FISHER: "Well, I'd come to think that humanity had evolved three distinctly different brain circuits for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive. The second is romantic love, that obsession of first love. And the third is attachment, that sense of calm that you can feel with a long-term partner. And I wanted to see how these three brain systems interacted. So I decided that I would start by trying to study the brain circuitry of romantic love."

RS: "How do you go about doing that?"

FISHER: "Well, I started out by reading the last twenty-five years of psychological research and culling out of that research every one of the traits of romantic love. Then I created a questionnaire that I gave to over four-hundred Americans and Japanese to see whether these traits really were associated with romantic love, things like focused attention, elation, heightened energy, obsessive thinking about the sweetheart, craving for emotional union with the sweetheart. And I began to see that there was a constellation of characteristics that represented this feeling ... "

RS: ... a feeling that Helen Fisher calls "romantic love."

FISHER: "And I also looked at poetry from around the world. And I found that everywhere in the world, people talk about being 'madly in love.' And they have forever. My oldest poetry comes from the ancient Sumerians, four-thousand years ago.

"So then I decided what I would do is try and put people who were madly in love into a functional MRI brain scanner. And then we would show them a photograph of their sweetheart, and also a neutral photograph, somebody who when they looked at that picture, it called forth no positive or negative feelings. So that way we were able to capture the brain while it was looking at the sweetheart and feeling that romantic passion, and also capture the same brain while it was looking at a neutral photograph. And then we'd compare the differences between, and what we ended up finding was those parts of the brain that become active when you are feeling mad, passionate, romantic love."

AA: "You're an anthropologist ... "

FISHER: "I am."

AA: " ... so I imagine you have your ears open whenever you're on the subway in the New York, or you're in the store or whatever you're doing ... "

FISHER: "Sure."

AA: " ... And if you're ever around younger couples, older couples, what sort of language are you hearing out in the world today?"

FISHER: "'I love you.' I mean, that's so basic. But it's not even what they say, it's how they act. It's the smiling and the cuddling and the preening and the staring and sense of oneness that you can see that -- it's not as much the words as it is all the activity that goes with the words. You know that ninety percent of emotional communication is non-verbal. I mean, if I said 'I love you' [no inflection] it certainly wouldn't have much meaning. But if I said 'I love you' [highly inflected] it would be entirely different. So it's the inflection of the words, it's the inflection that's the same around the world."

AA: "But you said in your book here, 'Smart men court with words.'"

FISHER: "Yes, they do. You're right, because women love words. And I think this women's facility for language comes from millions of years of holding that baby in front of their faces, cajoling them, reprimanding them, educating them with words. Words were women's tools. And as a result, if you want to court a woman, it's very appealing to a woman if you talk to her. And in the courtship -- you know, there's all kinds of men who've never written a line of poetry since they courted their wife. But during their courting days they wrote bad poetry, and the wife loved it and married them for it."

AA: "Last question, if you don't mind my asking, what are you going to be doing this Valentine's Day?"

FISHER: "You know, I haven't talked to my boyfriend about this yet. But my book comes out today, and today I asked him to take me out to a very fancy restaurant and go dancing!"

RS: "Oooh, sounds like fun!"

FISHER: "Can't wait!"

RS: Helen Fisher, speaking to us last week from New York. Her third book is called "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love."

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and we'd love you to visit us on the Web at

RS: Wishing you a happy Valentine's Day! With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.