Friday, June 03, 2005

Seven-Year Itch? Or Is It Four?

Helen Fisher has written a very interesting book Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love about love and romance. She argues that chemicals control your love affair and it's likely to fall apart and have you searching for a new partner every 4 years, not every 7.

Here's a link, and a review I found there:
Drawing on evidence from living primates, paleontology and diverse cultures, she argues that the evolution of large-brained, helpless hominid infants created a new imperative for mother and father to cooperate in child-rearing. Romantic love, she contests, drove ancestral women and men to come together long enough to conceive, whereas attachment, another complex of feelings with a different chemical basis, kept them together long enough to support a child until weaning (about four years).

Evidence indicates that as attachment grows, passion recedes. Thus, the same feelings that bring parents together often force them apart, as one or both fall in love with someone new. In this scenario, broken hearts and self-defeating crimes of passion become the unfortunate by-products of a biological system that usually facilitates reproduction.

Fisher's theory of how human pair-bonding evolved is just one of several hypotheses under debate today, and she does not discuss these alternatives. Similarly, some of her ideas about love's chemistry are quite speculative (which she fully acknowledges). No one familiar with the evidence, however, can disagree that romantic love is a human universal that requires an evolutionary explanation, and Fisher, more than any other scientist, has brought this important point to public awareness.

Like the words of a talented lover, Fisher's prose is charming and engaging. Love poems, both modern and classic, enliven her narrative, along with poignant examples of romantic passion from other times and cultures. One chapter is a litany to passion in other animals, a vivid reminder that we are not the only species that feels deeply. Another provides new insight into the obsessive attempts of abandoned lovers to rekindle romance. Toward the end of the book, Fisher helps to redeem the self-help genre, rooting her advice in hard science. She shows how you might "trick the brain" to maintain enduring passion or recover more quickly from the pain of rejection: "Someone is camping in your brain," she reminds us, and "you must throw the scoundrel out." Engaging in activities known to increase dopamine might help; after all, love is not our only source of intense pleasure. In hands as skilled and sensitive as Fisher's, scientific analysis of love only adds to its magic. If you forgot to give your beloved a gift on Valentine's Day, it's not too late to woo him or her anew with this book, which is likely to fascinate and delight anyone who has ever been in love.

-- Barbara Smuts is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She is author of Sex and Friendship in Baboons (reprinted with a new preface, Harvard University Press, 1999).
Dr. Fischer's written so many good books, check them out.