Driven To Love And Cheat

Helen Fisher tells us why we love + cheat
Ted Talks, February 2006

And I’ve also come to think that it’s one of three, basically different brain systems that evolved from mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive: the craving for sexual gratification. W.H. Auden called it an “intolerable neural itch,” and indeed, that’s what it is. It keeps bothering you a little bit, like being hungry. The second of these three brain systems is romantic love: that elation, obsession of early love. And the third brain system is attachment: that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner.

And I think that the sex drive evolved to get you out there, looking for a whole range of partners. You know, you can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody. I think romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy. And I think that attachment, the third brain system, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being — (Laughter) — at least long enough to raise a child together as a team. (6:39)

Very interesting. But not necessarily novel, if you think in evolutionary terms.

Then, women’s worst invention was the plow. With the beginning of plow agriculture, men’s roles became extremely powerful. Women lost their ancient jobs as collectors, but then with the industrial revolution and the post-industrial revolution they’re moving back into the job market. In short, they are acquiring the status that they had a million years ago, 10,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago. We are seeing now one of the most remarkable traditions in the history of the human animal. And it’s going to have an impact. (9:24)

That our attitudes toward sexuality and expression are becoming more progressive can only be good for women.

But these three brain systems: lust, romantic love and attachment, aren’t always connected to each other. You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you feel the sex drive for people unrelated to these other partners. In short, we’re capable of loving more than one person at a time. In fact, you can lie in bed at night and swing from deep feelings of attachment for one person to deep feelings of romantic love for somebody else. It’s as if there’s a committee meeting going on in your head as you are trying to decide what to do. So I don’t think, honestly, we’re an animal that was built to be happy; we are an animal that was built to reproduce. I think the happiness we find, we make. And I think, however, we can make good relationships with each other. (17:01)

Brilliant. I couldn’t have said it better myself (really)!

So I want to conclude with two things. I want to conclude with a worry. I have a worry — and with a wonderful story. The worry is about antidepressants. Over 100 million prescriptions of antidepressants are written every year in the United States. And these drugs are going generic. They are seeping around the world. I know one girl who’s been on these antidepressants, serotonin-enhancing — SSRI, serotonin-enhancing antidepressants — since she was 13. She’s 23. She’s been on them ever since she was 13.

I’ve got nothing against people who take them short term, when they’re going through something perfectly horrible. They want to commit suicide or kill somebody else. I would recommend it. But more and more people in the United States are taking them long term. And indeed, what these drugs do is raise levels of serotonin. And by raising levels of serotonin, you suppress the dopamine circuit. Everybody knows that. Dopamine is associated with romantic love. Not only do they suppress the dopamine circuit, but they kill the sex drive. And when you kill the sex drive, you kill orgasm. And when you kill orgasm, you kill that flood of drugs associated with attachment. The things are connected in the brain. And when you tamper with one brain system, you’re going to tamper with another. I’m just simply saying that a world without love is a deadly place. (17:59)

This bit raised my eyebrows. I’ve always been skeptical about anti-depressants and depression diagnoses in general.

3 Comment

  1. Mike and I listened to this together and we especially loved the third piece you quoted in your blog about the three separate ways we love. She is right to be worried about the future of humans and love due to the overuse of anti-depressants. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. @Kim – Oh, good. I’m glad you two watched it together. There is a lot there that could provoke interesting conversations. The physiological/chemical insights into our brains could help us understand each others’ motivations and lead to healthier relationships.

    I think I’m a dopamine junkie! ;)

  3. It’s great that woman are moving into the job market–particularly in journalism. They are closing the gender gap and expressing their sexuality. I found it interesting how Fisher said we’re an animal that was built to reproduce; not built to be happy. I believe we do make our own happiness.

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