After she checks into her office and deals with a few minor emergencies, we make our way to her first class, where the room is already filling up with hundreds of students. By the time she clears her throat and starts the lecture, it's jammed to the rafters.
"I think I'm just beginning to get a reputation," she told me earlier. "I suspect some of these students might be here because they've heard about me."
Helen Fisher has dedicated her life to exploring and defining the innate qualities of the human species. Being a woman, and one who has lived through the final days of an old millennium and the dawn of a new one, she's particularly drawn to the inborn aspects of romance and sexuality. As she paces the stage, she begins to loosen up. With her hand propped on her hip, she throws a few one-liners at the crowd, and asks them if they have any idea why human males have such large penises. Nobody wants to touch that one. But when she tells them that a mature silverback gorilla has only two inches, a couple of big football players in the back row glance at each other, appalled.
Fisher's central message starts with the now-familiar notion that men and women are very different; not different because they've been raised that way by a callous and patriarchal society, but because four million years of evolution have saddled them with very different nervous systems, temperaments and brains. She says men, for example, are inherently much more aggressive than women, and this innate aggressiveness is one of the reasons men tend to dominate the worlds of business and politics. She says that furthermore, despite their protestations, women prefer such dominant males as sex partners and long-term mates. These views haven't endeared her to traditional feminists.
At the time, it was generally believed that dating, flirtation, romance and courtship among humans were cultural constructs, and that marriage patterns varied wildly from one society to another. A big insight came in 1988, when Fisher was riding in a crowded New York subway car, reading divorce statistics. "These were UN statistics from 62 countries, going back to 1947," she says. "Incredibly, the statistics seemed to show that divorce peaks around the four-year mark." She kept rechecking the tables to see if she'd made a mistake. But whether the statistics were from Third World countries or highly developed Western nations, the pattern was the same.
"I was staggered," she says. "I couldn't believe there was a pattern, let alone a consistent one. Nobody had ever bothered to analyze this. To me, it clearly suggested that divorce might not be a cultural malaise, but an aspect of our inherited mating behaviour."
Some couples, of course, survive the four-year crisis. What's the cement that holds them together? Is it friendship, dependency, sexual heat? Most of us assume these are all aspects of that complicated force called "love." But Fisher's research indicates that lust, infatuation and long-term attachment are distinct drives. Sometimes they're even incompatible drives. Lust, for example, is often celebrated in pop music as just a rougher, friskier version of romantic love. But Fisher says that's a mistake. "Lust is not love. Lust is driven by brain chemistry, plain and simple. Lust is the desire for sexual gratification, no more. But it's a dangerous game, sleeping with someone just for the sake of sex, because your levels of oxytocin and vasopressin will go way up, and you'd better be ready for the consequences. These powerful chemicals produce feelings of attachment, and you can become emotionally involved with someone who's quite inappropriate."
Romantic love, or infatuation, is associated with a different barrage of chemicals. Romantic love produces dopamine, which generates obsessive feelings about the sexual partner. From an evolutionary point of view, this natural addiction ensures that both parties will stick together and do the hard slogging if a pregnancy occurs. Infatuation is also characterized by persistent "intrusive thinking" about the loved one. "People who are infatuated testify that they're thinking about their lover at least 90% of the time," she says. "Dopamine produces feelings of elation and excitement, along with decreased serotonin, which causes anxious, obsessive thinking. One minute you're up, the next you're down. It's no wonder that people in love feel so messed up."
As we ride the train back to New York, Fisher seems more relaxed than she was this morning. She's relieved that her first day of class has gone well. "I don't have a combative temperament," she admits. "And I don't do well when people attack me in large-group situations. But I've taught myself to be calm, and stick to the facts, and not take it personally. When I was less experienced, I'd immediately feel like doing the girl thing, which is to run off and cry."
She explains that it's "the girl thing" because the male and female brain have dramatically different physiological responses to emotional stress. When you put a man in an MRI machine and ask him to think of something sad, a small part of his brain will light up. Ask a woman the same question and the response will be about eight times greater. The well-known tendency of men to "stonewall" is therefore not macho stubbornness, but brain physiology.
"Let's not forget that the human brain has been evolving for four million years," Fisher says. "For most of that time, it's been important for men to compartmentalize their feelings. If a hunter has to cut a gazelle's throat, empathizing with the gazelle is actually counter-productive."
She says evolution favoured the man who could ignore discomfort, fear, danger, weariness, pity, etc., and focus on the task at hand.
"Either way, it takes from 18 months to three years for the feelings to subside. For some relationships, that's the beginning of the end. That's where all the sad songs and the poems leave off -- at the end of love. But speaking as a woman, not a scientist, I don't regard infatuation as real love. I think that real love requires commitment and long-term effort. Infatuation is a free ride."
She says couples who survive the death of infatuation are those who can make the transition into what she calls attachment. "This is the warm, secure feeling associated with a comfortable relationship," she says. "As infatuation subsides and attachment grows, a new group of chemicals takes over. Unlike dopamine, which makes us all revved up and anxious, these calm us down. When two people are happily attached, they feel a sense of peace and security. This is the kind of relationship, I think, that most people are hoping for. I've had both, and I've found that even the most mundane long-term relationship is more satisfying than the wildest short-term affair. Long-term relationships allow for personal autonomy, trust and a real feeling of partnership. The challenge, of course, is in finding someone to share your life with."
Manhattan has a population of more than 65,000 people per square mile, the highest density in North America. As the city's mythmakers persistently contend, it's the world's premiere gathering place for the rich and beautiful, the best and brightest. You'd think it wouldn't be much trouble finding a mate in such a target-rich environment, but New York also has a remarkably low population of live-in couples. The average household has 1.6 occupants -- and that includes many neighbourhoods with large immigrant families. Most New Yorkers live alone.
In the search for a partner, they go to such places as Scopa, a fashionable singles bar on East 28th. It's as good a place as any to try to meet someone, and tonight, Helen Fisher and I are going on a safari to study the humans. (The Doctor of Love)