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Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love Hardcover – February 4, 2004

3.9 out of 5 stars 92 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Anthropologist Fisher argues that much of our romantic behavior is hard-wired in this provocative examination of love. Her case is bolstered by behavioral research into the effects of two crucial chemicals, norepinephrine and dopamine, and by surveys she conducted across broad populations. When we fall in love, she says, our brains create dramatic surges of energy that fuel such feelings as passion, obsessiveness, joy and jealousy. Fisher devotes a fascinating and substantial chapter to the appearance of romance and love among non-human animals, and composes careful theories about early humans in love. One of her many surprising conclusions suggests that, since "four-year birth intervals were the regular pattern of birth spacing during our long human prehistory," our modern brains still deal with relationships in serially monogamous terms of about four years. Indeed, Fisher gathered data from around the world showing that divorce was most prevalent in the fourth year of marriage, when a couple had a single dependent child. Fisher also reports on the behaviors that lead to successful lifelong partnerships and offers, based on what she's observed, numerous tips on staying in love. And though she's certain that chemicals are at love's heart, Fisher never loses her sense of the emotion's power or poetry.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American

A male baboon named Sherlock sat on a cliff, unable to take his eyes off his favorite female, Cybelle, as she foraged far below. Each time Cybelle approached another adult male, Sherlock froze with tension, only to relax again when she ignored a potential rival. Finally, Cybelle glanced up and met his gaze. Instantly Sherlock flattened his ears and narrowed his eyes in what baboon researchers call the come-hither face. It worked; seconds later Cybelle sat by her guy, grooming him with gusto. After observing many similar scenarios, I realized that baboons, like humans, develop intense attractions to particular members of the opposite sex. Baboon heterosexual partnerships bear an intriguing resemblance to ours, but they also differ in important ways. For instance, baboons can simultaneously be "in love" with more than one individual, a capacity that, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, most humans lack. ADVERTISEMENT (article continues below) Fisher is well known for her three previous books (The Sex Contract, Anatomy of Love and The First Sex), which bring an evolutionary perspective to myriad aspects of sex, love, and sex differences. This book is the best, in my view, because it goes beyond observable behaviors to consider their underlying brain mechanisms. Most people think of romantic love as a feeling. Fisher, however, views it as a drive so powerful that it can override other drives, such as hunger and thirst, render the most dignified person a fool, or bring rapture to an unassuming wallflower. This original hypothesis is consistent with the neurochemistry of love. While emphasizing the complex and subtle interplay among multiple brain chemicals, Fisher argues convincingly that dopamine deserves center stage. This neurotransmitter drives animals to seek rewards, such as food and sex, and is also essential to the pleasure experienced when such drives are satisfied. Fisher thinks that dopamine's action can explain both the highs of romantic passion (dopamine rising) and the lows of rejection (dopamine falling). Citing evidence from studies of humans and other animals, she also demonstrates marked parallels between the behaviors, feelings and chemicals that underlie romantic love and those associated with substance addiction. Like the alcoholic who feels compelled to drink, the impassioned lover cries that he will die without his beloved. Dying of a broken heart is, of course, not adaptive, and neither is forsaking family and fortune to pursue a sweetheart to the ends of the earth. Why then, Fisher asks, has evolution burdened humans with such seemingly irrational passions? 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).


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (February 4, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805069136
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #190,959 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book suceeds on two levels. First, it is scientifically rigorous, though speculative. (those who accuse Fisher of being a popularizer obviously have never read her technical journal articles, nor other articles on this subject by researchers. She is no more speculative than they.) Second, it is existentially enlightening and empathetic. Fisher does not just wish to share her scientific insights into romantic love, she wishes to let you know that she feels your pains and joys. She wishes to explain and understand.

Fisher begins by laying out the basic external and internal manifestations of romantic love. What does it do to people? Here she is spot on. It causes us to focus our energy on the beloved, endow that person with special meaning, increases our energy, etc. Most importantly, it causes obsessive, intrusive thinking. We can't go a minute without the object of our desire popping into our head! Now, I am not a betting man, but I am sure everyone can relate to this description.

After describing the basic characteristics of romantic love, Fisher discusses the possible neural underpinnings that cause such intense feelings. She speculates that humans have three different systems: 1)Lust. This is mostly controlled by testosterone. This drive causes one night stands and other stupid behaviors us men seem to excell at. 2) romantic love. This drive is caused by increasing dopamine levels stimulating 'pleasure centers' in the brain. Specifically, the ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus, and probably the nucleus accumbens. Romantic love probably also involves an increase in norepinephrine and a decrease in serotonin. The last is worth a brief explanation.
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Format: Hardcover
When it comes to communicating about sex, there's often a gap between what we want to say and how we say it, and even the gentlest of words can come off as confrontational. Criticism, expressed or perceived harshly, can be the sexual kiss of death.

Anthropologists have long observed that women are "face-to-face" communicators, while men do so "side by side." This means that women are much more comfortable with direct eye contact, which probably has a lot to do with the long history female history of maternal nursing, cuddling, and generally fawning over their infants while staring lovingly into those big baby eyes.

Men, on the other hand, find direct eye contact extremely confrontational on an instinctive level. As Dr. Helen Fisher writes in her remarkable book, Why We Love, "This response probably stems from men's ancestry. For many millennia men faced their enemies; they sat or walked sat by side as they hunted game with their friends."

As a sex therapist I get asked all the time, "How do I talk to my guy about sex without making him defensive?" Now I will offer the advice, "unless you want your words to usher him into battle, use evolution to your advantage, and have a sex-talk while taking a walk or a drive."

Thanks Dr. Fisher for the infinite wisdom that abounds on every page of this remarkable book!
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Format: Hardcover
"Why We Love" is one of the most interesting books available today on the subject of love. From years of empirical research finally comes a fact filled fascinating book on love. Helen Fisher examines the chemical basis of love; yes there are chemical changes when you are in love. From workings of specific chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and seratonin to fMRI examinations of the brain the book is packed with hard empirical research results. In addition to this she looks at evolutionary factors in things like how we choose our mate and how that process is different for men and women. Not to leave any stone unturned she also discusses the problem of lost love and its effects on our body and emotional health. Finally she discusses how to make romance last and includes a fascinating section on intimacy differences between male and female. "Why We Love" deserves the highest recommendation that I can give and is a book that I am likely not only to recommend but also to purchase as a gift for others who want to understand the phenomenon of love. Bravo Helen Fisher for such an enlightening work that is sure to become the new standard by which similar works will be judged.
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By A Customer on February 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I found this book a disappointment. Dr. Fisher's earlier book, The Sex Contract, was a popular and accessible review of some important ideas about evolution and human behavior. They have been around for 20 years or more but hadn't reached a lay audience. Nothing wrong with popularizing science. It's a public service. Personally, I'd suggest Sara Hrdy's The Woman Who Never Evolved and Mother Nature as the books about evolution, sex, and bonding that will stand the test of time.
Unfortunately, Dr. Fisher's new book is less a service to science or the public than The Sex Contract. Indeed her books seem to me to be steadily sliding downward from popularization of science to mere popularization. Notwithstanding social scientists' current enthusiasm for brain research, we are still very early in the game. In most respects we don't know the right questions to ask or how to frame them. We rarely know what the answers are like, muchless the details or how they might be translated into practical applications.
Dr. Fisher presents a few facts about neurotransmitters as explaining far more than they reasonably can. There are the obligatory cautions and qualifications but they aren't allowed to get in the way of the story. A great deal of the most careful neuroscience research on bonding and parenting is on mice. Nice little brains, inexpensive to feed, and they are mammals. But their evolutionary solution to mating, having young, and parenting is dramatically different from ours. The adults don't form lasting bonds. They have an amazing number of offspring which require care for only a very brief time, and their young do not have lifelong bonds to the parents. As Dr. Fisher points out in her previous books, humans are dramatically different.
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