Helen Fisher
This Is Your Brain on Sex

As an anthropologist on the frontier of seeing inside our brains, Helen Fisher explores the thrilling and sometimes treacherous realms of love and sex. In the research she does for Match.com and her TED talks that have been viewed by millions of people, she wields science as an entertaining, if sobering, lens on what feel like the most meaningful encounters of our lives. And in this deeply personal conversation, she shows how it is possible to take on this knowledge as a form of wisdom and power.

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is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site Match.com. Her books include Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of MatingMarriage, and Why We Stray and Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.


April 20, 2017

Ms. Helen Fisher: You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake. But then when you sit down and eat it, you just feel that rush of joy. And in the same way, I know a lot about love. I know a lot about marriage. I know a lot about adultery and divorce. Know something about the brain. Certainly know — hopefully know something about evolution. But I’m just like you and everybody else. When it hits you, you’re off to the races. There’s been times that I’ve walked towards the phone saying, “Don’t call him, Helen.”

Krista Tippett, host: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: “This isn’t a good idea, Helen.” As I’m punching the buttons on the phone and calling him. So, bottom line is, there’s been times when I’ve sort of met a man who I could have really loved, and I knew immediately, “No, no. Don’t go there.” Whereas I think, if you don’t know how powerful love is, you might try. When in fact, it’s not the right idea.

Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher knows how powerful love is as a leading anthropologist/explorer on the new frontier of seeing inside our brains when love and sex happen. In her TED talks that have been viewed by millions of people, and the research she does for Match.com, she wields science as a sobering, if entertaining, lens on what feel like the most meaningful encounters of our lives. In this wonderfully personal conversation, Helen Fisher reveals how we can take this knowledge as a form of power for giving conscious new meaning to the thrilling and sometimes treacherous human realms of love and sex.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and she’s chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site Match.com. We spoke in Camden, Maine around the edges of the 2014 PopTech conference there.

Ms. Tippett: I always ask whoever I’m speaking with if there was a religious or spiritual background to their childhood, like, however you might define that.

Ms. Fisher: None.

Ms. Tippett: None. Really?

Ms. Fisher: I had no religious education at all. I grew up in an entirely lily-white Christian community in Connecticut. And when it came time for Sunday School, my father said to me and to my twin sister, “I’d be happy to take you to the church on my way to play tennis, but you’re going to have to find your own ride home.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.

Ms. Fisher: And so I went once and got a ride home with Margot Evermann’s family, who lived nearby. And that was it. The rest of my Sundays were spent playing with my twin sister, and I never went again. I’m actually going to a church right now up in Harlem. And I originally went for the gospel music, but this particular preacher actually says something. I like to have an experience in which I come home thinking about something. This is one of the reasons that I love the theater, particularly people like Ibsen, because you come away from it with ideas, ideas about yourself, ideas about the world. I happen to be an atheist, and I always have been. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the Hubble Telescope site on the internet, but when you take a look at what’s out there, it’s so staggering. Reality is so staggering. The real meanings of life for me are in reality, I guess.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, well, that’s one of those — you talk a lot in your work about how we are kind of reversing 10,000 years of habit, and I think, I mean, we’re doing that in many spheres. And I think religion is not going to look the same in the next century as it did in the 20th century.

Ms. Fisher: That’s a wonderful way — I had not thought about that. That’s wonderful.

Ms. Tippett: So where do you trace, really the — I’m just curious — can you trace the earliest origins of this, of love, and romance, and this drive in us as something that you had this special curiosity about that you started to pursue?

Ms. Fisher: You know, people have always asked me why I study love. And — this is in hindsight — I’m an identical twin. And long before I knew that there was a nature/nurture controversy, I was very busy trying to measure how much of my own behavior was biological and how much of it was cultural. And as a child, I was very interested in people. I lived in this glass house, and my neighbors lived in a glass house. And by the time I was 6 and 7, I would sneak into the woods and sit on an old stone wall and watch them eat dinner.

And I’ve always been interested in why we’re all alike as opposed to why we’re all different. So when it came time for my PhD dissertation, what I was most interested in — I figured that if there was any part of us at all that we had all in common, it would be our reproductive strategies. It would be our sex lives, our romantic lives, and our reproductive lives.

Ms. Tippett: So when I was reading about your research and what you’re learning — as somebody who has been married and divorced — but also, I think so many of us who are single, but not just single people, kind of look around the world today at the matter of love, and it feels like there’s just a lot of disarray. Now, whether there’s more disarray than there ever has been, who knows? You know, maybe we know all the stories too much.

Ms. Fisher: I think it is a time of disarray.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, obviously, marriage and divorce has been in flux. One of the things that was interesting to me about your science is you do describe what happens in the brain as — has hallmarks of temporary insanity, right? I mean, it’s obsessiveness. I mean, I think you’ve said that the chief hallmark is that obsessiveness. And I just — I pulled out this passage from a novel. And I know you also like to work with literature and poetry.

Ms. Fisher: I do.

Ms. Tippett: Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey — but he wrote this novel, and I just loved this passage when I found it. He said, “Lust, that state commonly known as ‘being in love,’ is a kind of madness. It is a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers.”

Ms. Fisher: [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: “And yet, as we all know, it is a madness that, however ferocious, seldom, if ever, lasts… But, paradoxically, mad and suffering as one is, and the heat of the flame, few of us are glad as we feel that passion slip away.” You know, he goes on.

Ms. Fisher: What a beautiful — what a beautiful…

Ms. Tippett: It goes on. “No, while most people have been at their unhappiest when in love, it is nevertheless the state the human being yearns for above all.” [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. In fact, parts of the brain associated with decision-making begin to shut down when you’re in love. Literally…

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK. And that makes so much sense.

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. The blood rolls out instead of rolling in. And so they begin to — begins to shut down. And of course, I mean, for obvious reasons. This brain system of romantic love — and I do think it’s different from lust. I do think they’re very different brain systems. But romantic love evolved for that reason, to enable you to overlook everything in order to be with this human being. And of course, that’s what you really need to do to start that mating process. Because bottom line is that if you have four children, and I have no children, you live on, and I die out.

The game of love matters. It matters big time. It enables you to send your DNA on into tomorrow. And so we’ve evolved a brain system and attachments. A very strong brain system too. But it’s not the same quite insanity. Maybe a different form of insanity, but it evolved to be so strong that some people will leave their community. They’ll leave their town. They’ll leave their family. They’ll go to a different country. They’ll learn a new language. They will start all over with their lives to do this thing. And then you wake up a few years later and — people wonder why love — why that early state of intense romantic passion begins to die.

And bottom line is it takes a lot of metabolic energy. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t think about anything else. You focus on this person constantly. You change your hair. You change your life. You change your clothes. You change your friends. You do a million different things in order to win and be part of this relationship. And you can’t tolerate that forever. Not only will you run out of energy, but you can’t really have a child sitting there at dinner and the two of you racing around the dinner table after each other.

Ms. Tippett: Right. So that’s what, I think — and you have described all of this and what’s happening in the brain in terms of this brew of neurotransmitters and hormones.

Ms. Fisher: “Brew” is a wonderful word. Never heard that.

Ms. Tippett: So interesting. And yet, it’s a whole different set of qualities that we need to have — that we need to be manifesting personally. And also in that relationship in order to actually be good parents, right?

Ms. Fisher: That’s exactly — and that’s one of the reasons I say to people, “Don’t marry him or her until some of that intensity has worn off.”

Ms. Tippett: Really? You do say that.

Ms. Fisher: So that you really know more about who you’re going to have a partnership with. It’s very interesting because I now study personality, and I read an article not long ago about the fact that you really actually don’t get to know somebody very well until about 18 months are over. And of course, if it’s in a good relationship, you keep learning things about them 30 years later.

I mean, when their parents die, if a child dies, if you suddenly have to move, or you lose all your money, or you make a lot of money, you’re going to learn a whole lot of new things about somebody. I think that’s one of the problems with American marriage. We somehow think that the minute you marry, you sort of lock the door and stay in place. Whereas relationships evolve, and a good one is constantly evolving.

Ms. Tippett: Was it Margaret Mead who said everyone should have three marriages even if it’s to the same person?

Ms. Fisher: Oh, how wonderful.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Like, that everybody should have three marriages. And even if it’s the same person, that the marriage has to become something new at a different stage in life.

Ms. Fisher: Oh, that’s wonderful. I know that she said that the first one is for sex, the second one is for children, and the third one is for companionship.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. But I mean — so what’s so interesting again about the way you’re able to break this down is this first part of it, this falling in love part of it, this passion, this madness, which then leads to this commitment, is just instinctive. It’s not only built into us, it almost takes us over.

Ms. Fisher: No question about it. It takes over the brain.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Takes over the brain. But then, this other part, the part about raising children, the part about crafting a long-term love, moving into those next two marriages if you want to use that analogy — we’re so unprepared for.

Ms. Fisher: Well, this is why — when you said we were in a time of disorganization, and we are. I mean, we are shedding 10,000 years of our farming background and all of the concepts that arose with that. I mean, the fact that a woman’s place is in the home. Women don’t have a head for business. Men should be the head of the family. Men should be the sole family provider. ‘Til death do us part. All of that is vanishing before our very eyes, 10,000 years of these concepts. And so we’re at this time of disorganization where nobody knows really how to go forward.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: And so — but it gives us great opportunities to build the kinds of partnerships that we really want. And one of the beautiful things about what you just said is that, OK, well, we don’t really know how to parent. And we don’t really know much about this person. And so what we’re doing now is getting into relationships very slowly. And that’s the beauty of this.

Ms. Tippett: And that’s a shift that you’re seeing now demographically.

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. These one-night-stands, the friends with benefits, the living together before you getting married. More and more people are having children before they marry. And so, they are beginning to — they’re beginning to really understand a human being before they sink the boat into a mutual thing.

Ms. Tippett: And I think it’s important to dwell on that. Because what you are saying is that, especially generationally, you can — and I have children who are 16 and 20, right? And you can say…

Ms. Fisher: Boys? Girls?

Ms. Tippett: A boy — 16-year-old boy, 20-year-old girl. Actually, she just turned 21. And you can worry — but parents can worry about the, as you say, the casual sex, the friends with benefits, which feels just really suspect and irresponsible and scary. But you’re saying that that’s not necessarily about them being flaky or casual. But it’s a manifestation of being cautious and…

Ms. Fisher: Not only being — yeah, being cautious, really learning something about this person. Now, I mean, most people know all about contraception, so that worry is no — should no longer be with us. And, most people know about disease, and so that — they should be able to monitor that. And so, some of the riskiest parts of living with somebody are gone. And, of course, parents are now accepting their children living with somebody, so they don’t even have the social stigma of it. And their social circles are accepting it. So, a lot of people almost intuitively reason, “I’ve got no reason to not do this. And I got huge reasons to really get to know this person.”

Ms. Tippett: Well, and especially when so many people now are growing up in homes where there was — where marriages didn’t — they failed.

Ms. Fisher: Exactly. They’ve seen it around them.

Ms. Tippett: And not just them, but all their friend groups. I mean, I think of my kids. And then there’s this interesting thing that’s happening now with the fluidity of family, of all the forms of family. I mean, there is no model.

Ms. Fisher: Right. We’re seeing a new form called — that I call the association. And, I’m really excited about it because it’s groups of friends. I live in New York. My — both parents are deceased. My older sister lives in Europe. My brother’s dead. And my older — my twin sister lives in Europe. So, I really — Thanksgiving is a challenge for me.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Fisher: And I’m between men, so that’s a real challenge. So I have a group of friends who I see, and I see them regularly. And they’re the ones that will come to the hospital if I’m sick. They’re the ones that I will call to say that I made a speech that people liked. And it’s an association of friends that is my real family. And it’s interesting how a lot of young people — they’re much closer to their association than they are to their own family. So Christmas and holidays become very stressful for them. Because they go home to families that they really don’t know very well, and who don’t really know them. They don’t know these people they way they know the people they hang around with in New York City. So we’re building new forms of family.

[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with anthropologist of love and sex, Helen Fisher.

[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: I wonder if you’ve also paid any attention to something I’m aware of as a parent of teenaged children, and I hear a lot of people talking about it, is that even this romance piece seems to happen collectively in groups. Dating is not what it used to be. You don’t invite the girl to go to a movie and dinner. You go out with a group of friends and then somehow people are coupled. But it’s a very different pattern.

Ms. Fisher: And even that, I think, is cautious. I mean, first of all, they don’t have a lot of money. And dinner these days costs a lot. And once you start having dinner with somebody, you are expressing a genuine interest. But if you casually go out with a group, and you go dancing, and then you all end up having breakfast at 2 a.m. at some place. And you can get to know somebody. It’s the expanding pre-commitment stage. And there is, I think, a Darwinian wisdom to that. It’s interesting. I was talking to somebody recently who said that actually the dinner date is coming back. But I haven’t seen the signs of that. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: No.

Ms. Fisher: Even among older people. I mean, I’m older. And I’m forming new friendships in a group. And that’s exactly what’s happening to me. There’s a couple men in that group that I could be interested in, but nobody’s expressed anything.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: Everybody just goes with the group.

Ms. Tippett: And you don’t know what the rules of the game are, ‘cause it’s a new game, right?

Ms. Fisher: It’s a new game. Everybody has to make up their own rules, which is both extremely difficult, but has great opportunity.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: I mean, for example, with technology. I mean, that is changing courtship. It’s not changing love. I mean, once you — whether you meet them on Tinder or Facebook or Match.com or your girlfriend sets you up, when you meet that person in the bar or at the coffee house, your ancient human brain clicks into action. And you court the way we’ve done it for millions of years. But bottom line is that courtship, how you meet somebody, what the etiquette is — we’re now building what Margaret Mead called taboos. Instead of rules, taboos. One of the new taboos is that 60 percent of people on a date find it extremely rude if their partner — dating partner pulls out…

Ms. Tippett: Their phone?

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. And does a text message or uses their phone in any way. So I do this annual study with Match.com called “Singles in America.” And we don’t poll the Match population, we poll the American population. It’s based on the U.S. census. And 45 percent of women research a date before they go out. About 33 percent of men do. Far fewer men. We don’t know why.

Ms. Tippett: Really.

Ms. Fisher: But my hypothesis is that men are much more afraid of being accused of stalking. And so, they’re not going to do that. But what amazes me as an anthropologist is why doesn’t 100 percent of both men and women research the date? Because it’s natural. I mean, for millions of years, we lived in these little hunting and gathering groups. And they would arrive at a water hole, and some girl would see some cute boy at the other side of the water hole. And she didn’t know him.

Ms. Tippett: She’d ask someone about him?

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. Her mother knew his aunt. Her father knew his brother. She knew what he was going to be when he grew up. She probably knew what his religion was. She probably even knew whether he was a good shot or if he had a good sense of humor. People for millions of years went into relationships, even on the first date, knowing a good deal about a human being. And we somehow think that’s it’s natural to walk into a bar and know nothing about somebody, and unnatural to go onto a dating site. Where in fact, it really is the reverse. And now we’re sort of on our own. In the past, our parents…

Ms. Tippett: Right. We don’t have those extended circles of people who know them.

Ms. Fisher: We don’t have any of those extended — and we are missing something. The loss of local community. Everybody’s very upset about divorce. Divorce has been around for a good four million years. Serial pair-bonding is probably basic to the human animal. Series of partnerships. But what is really unusual for me is the loss of local community. We have extended communities. We have our internet friends. We’ve got our work friends. We’ve got our people who we exercise with. We’ve got people who we go to a poetry conference with. Whatever it is, but we don’t have local community.

Ms. Tippett: Well, and the other thing I’ve thought about some over the years is how marriages are such lonely — the nuclear family is very unnatural in human history for these same reasons, right? That marriages and families would have been embedded in networks of other marriages and other families and elders and cross-generational.

Ms. Fisher: So well said. So well said.

Ms. Tippett: And I think it’s like this death blow to marriage as an institution almost to have it be this isolated where you have two people who are left to take everything out on themselves.

Ms. Fisher: People are so upset about this — a single mother, or a single father. I’m upset, like you are, about the two of them. They’re all by themselves.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Ms. Fisher: And it’s so interesting. I have a housekeeper who comes every two weeks, and I just adore this woman. And she’s from Ecuador. And I asked her how many people she has for Thanksgiving. She has 50 people for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t scare up 10 relatives. I couldn’t do it.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: But there’s something beautiful about — and that’s of course the way we lived for millions of years. So 100,000 years ago, if you divorced, OK, so he walked out of the little camp with his bow and arrow. And that was it.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Fisher: But you still had your mother, your aunts, your uncles, your cousins.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: A whole pile of people to support your child…

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Right.

Ms. Fisher: …with you.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Ms. Fisher: You had a whole local community.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Fisher: And that’s what’s really disappearing. And that is a real shame. And so, it’s part of this age of tremendous transition.

Ms. Tippett: So one of the things I feel comes through in your TED talks and in this presentation I saw you give yesterday is that this drive in us to mate and settle down is just one of the most fundamental things about who we are. I mean, but when you talk about these new associations, whatever stage of life we’re at — and I don’t know if this is a true statement — but I think most of us, at any given time, if we had a choice, “Would you have a romantic sexual relationship or not?” You’d say, “Sure.” But it’s also possible not to be loneley without that and to have very rich lives that are full of love.

Ms. Fisher: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: Not that particular form of love, but full of love, which doesn’t have insanity attached, which can be kind of a relief.

Ms. Fisher: Exactly. And you don’t have to be annoyed if they leave their socks on the floor one more time. I mean, you know…

Ms. Tippett: So, I mean, do you think this is also, I mean, is this kind of a form of progress that we’re charting, this new way of choosing our lives of love and association.

Ms. Fisher: I like the — it’s a wonderful idea. The only thing I would disagree with is I’m not sure it’s new. Maybe the association part is new because it was always family. And in that kind of — there’s some beauty in those — that opportunity for choice. And I think that’s what you’re getting at. We’re moving back into a world where people can make choices. And I would guess in hunting and gathering societies, there are older women who say, “No. I’m not going for another old man. I’m going to hang around with the group and have a good time with my girlfriends.” [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Fisher: And we’re back at that. Whereas on the farm, they often married the next day after a partner died. Because they needed somebody to milk the cows.

Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting to have that big, broad lens, that perspective.

Ms. Fisher: Right.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I remember even learning that 100 years ago, or up until the early — late 19th, early 20th century, was it something like, the average marriage lasted for seven years because life spans were so different.

Ms. Fisher: Isn’t that right?

Ms. Tippett: We could all hang on for seven years.

Ms. Fisher: [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right? Almost. No matter the marriage.

Ms. Fisher: Right. That’s interesting that you know that. I mean, very few people know that. The lifespan, by the way, has never changed. But the bottom line is, so many people died in infancy and childhood…

Ms. Tippett: And childbirth, yes.

Ms. Fisher: …that the average was reduced. But in the year 1900, the average marriage, I think, was 12 years.

Ms. Tippett: 12. Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: And the — in the year 1990, the average marriage was also 12 years. But 100 years ago, the marriage ended because somebody died. And these days, it ends because somebody divorces.

Ms. Tippett: So I’m becoming aware as we’re speaking very, kind of, transactionally and biologically about the institution of marriage. And the damage that gets done to children when marriages fail the way they fail these days is significant. And those are the kinds of things that religious people talk about in sacred terms. I mean, it is thinking about marriage as an institution that is there to be nurturing, and in particular to be nurturing to the children. And, I mean, there’s all this — like, the religious view of marriage as a sacrament is — it doesn’t really figure in the way you study marriage and look at marriage. And I just — I wonder if you ever have conversations with religious people.

Ms. Fisher: It would be very interesting.

Ms. Tippett: But have you not — do people ever…

Ms. Fisher: They haven’t yet, but maybe you’ll inspire them.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I mean, do you see that as just a — as a way of thinking about marriage that is just completely removed from what you see and work with, or…

Ms. Fisher: No, I see it as a beautiful…

Ms. Tippett: What would an interesting discussion be for you?

Ms. Fisher: Well, just backing up, hold that thought because that’s something I really have to think about, what an interesting discussion would be. But I think you’ve started it right now. And I don’t see it as religion supporting marriage. I see the profoundly basic human drive to love and form marriages as so important that we’ve created institutions like religion to support it. So, even more important than religion are these profoundly basic human drives to love. And religions then build on that drive to support that drive. But it’s one of mankind’s institutions that is very supportive of love. So, what kind of conversation would I like to have with a theologian? Can you tell me?

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, I think maybe someone would say that they — this capacity that we have, I mean, not just restricted to romantic love, but including that, is just one of the most ennobling and defining characteristics of what it means to be human at its best. And I think…

Ms. Fisher: And I would agree, of course.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And I think they might be disturbed at your — that the scientific focus that you bring to it — that it might feel reductionistic — what happens in terms of neurotransmitters and hormones and biology. And, I mean, I wonder how you would…

Ms. Fisher: Great.

Ms. Tippett: …engage that discomfort?

Ms. Fisher: You’ve just enabled me to say what — if I’d — when I die, what I’m going to say next is, for me, the one thing I would like humanity to remember. And that is, the more we know about the brain, the body, human evolution, about biology, the more we will come to understand the power of culture to change that biology. Biology and culture and religion, they all go hand-in-hand. They’re all parts of a huge, big system called humanity. And I don’t feel that they threaten each other. I feel that they enhance one another. And that a truly religious person, if they have any imagination, can benefit from understanding that the love of God is in all of us in some form. That it’s biologically based. It’s not going away. And that it’s part of humanity. So, I don’t see a big dichotomy that other people might see. I see a tremendous union between the intellectual, the spiritual, and the biological. I think they work together as a team.

[music: “Liminal Space” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Helen Fisher through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Liminal Space” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a wide-ranging, personal conversation with the anthropologist/explorer of the science of love, sex, and marriage, Helen Fisher. She’s well known for her TED talks and her research for Match.com, where she’s chief science advisor. When we fall in love, it turns out, it’s dopamine that makes us feel obsessed with the object of our desire, while chemicals released during sex activate a profound sense of bonding.

Ms. Tippett: Another thing from your science that I was applying to that is you talked about how casual sex doesn’t really remain casual.

Ms. Fisher: It’s not casual. Unless you’re so drunk you can’t remember.

Ms. Tippett: And why? And why? I mean, how you can explain it, it’s because of what is set off in your brain and your body conspires to make you start feeling attached to this person.

Ms. Fisher: Or in love, or both.

Ms. Tippett: Or in love. Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: Right. And, when you have orgasm, you get a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. And these are the basic bodily and brain systems for attachment.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s like what mother’s get when they love their babies. It’s a primal…

Ms. Fisher: Yeah, yeah. I mean, don’t have sex with somebody you don’t want to feel something for. I mean, people can do what they want to do. I’m not in the “should” business. But the bottom line is, if you don’t want to get attached to somebody, it’s easier to not sleep with them. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Fisher: Because you might end up being attached to somebody who really does not fit into your life.

Ms. Tippett: And I think as — again, in this new world — I mean, I grew up in a very conservative, strict, Southern Baptist — you know, small town where you were saving yourself for marriage, like, and this was just an absolute. And now I kind of look back on that and see it as helpful in a way. Like it provided boundaries that were good so that you didn’t — I mean, I actually see these rules at a point.

Ms. Fisher: Right. Human animal needs boundaries. And here we are in a society now where we don’t have any rules. Nobody knows what to do.

Ms. Tippett: Right. And even in very religious cultures like that, where people are kind of crafting their path towards marriage with these religious rules, I still think all the messages that are coming at them about who you marry, and about the romance of that are coming from movies with happy endings, and all the love songs that we just — that we’re awash in at that age.

Ms. Fisher: I remember…

Ms. Tippett: And I wanted to ask you about that because I guess one of my kind of deeper concerns here with this subject is that somehow — I love your idea that this knowledge is power. And somehow our brains take us through these several, very powerful stages to getting to the point of being with other people. But somehow we need to figure out how to be intelligent and caring in this matter of long-term love and it seems like we have almost — it seems like our brains don’t do that for us.

Ms. Fisher: It’s such a good point because Americans love romantic love. We just love romantic love. But we don’t pay much attention to attachment. And it’s very interesting, I was on some radio with a guy from China. It was a great learning moment for me because I was talking about romantic love and how you can remain in love long-term as well as loving the person. And you can sustain this long-term romantic love in a deep attachment. And he said, “Why would you want to do that?”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Fisher: Because they admire attachment. Or at least he did. And he was representing the Chinese perspective that, OK, romantic love comes, and romantic love goes. What’s really powerfully important is that feeling of deep attachment to a human being. And at that moment, I said, “Oh, right, Helen. You’ve just been a member of your own culture, and you’ve not realized that other cultures historically…”

Ms. Tippett: The attachment itself is a wonderful thing.

Ms. Fisher: That’s what he was telling me. And we celebrate romantic love, and we do not really celebrate attachment. And in fact, I remember a line from a poem that a friend of mine wrote, which was, “We are lied to by our love songs.”

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Ms. Fisher: Because they always end up with a happy ending. But what is it about Americans that — we’ve been lied to by our love songs. We want to believe it. We do see it in the movies — rejection. But we have rose-colored glasses on.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And I just also feel like with all this change that we’ve talked about, with new up-and-coming generations, it being a complete matter of choice for them, right? And then the fact that we’re all living longer.

Ms. Fisher: Right.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, we have so many decades, potentially…

Ms. Fisher: Yeah, to live with somebody.

Ms. Tippett: …to have — to be married, to have all kinds of relationships. Or to have a marriage that, as Margaret Mead said, might evolve to be a few marriages to survive. I just feel like somehow, we have to grab hold of this and kind of become learners.

Ms. Fisher: I think the young are.

Ms. Tippett: You do?

Ms. Fisher: I mean — yeah. In the “Singles in America” — not everybody. But in the “Singles in America” study that I do with Match.com, we ask them, “What must you have in a relationship?” And, “What’s very important?” And they must have somebody they can trust and confide in. They must have somebody who respects them. They must have somebody who makes them laugh, which actually is very important biologically.

Ms. Tippett: I just love that. I love it. Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: Because laughter drives up the dopamine system. It’s very good for you. Laughter’s very good for you.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: They must have somebody who spends enough time — puts — gives them enough time. And they must have somebody that they find physically attractive. We are turning inwards. We are trying to build now the most important relationship. And when I ask the questions, like, they’re very in favor of marriage without children. They’re very in favor of children without marriage. They’re very in favor of living together. What they will not tolerate is commuter marriages, people living in separate homes, people living in separate bedrooms. They want total transparency in the relationship. They want to be — have access to the person’s cell phone.

A great many of them would walk out even on a date who hides what they’re saying on their phone or their texts. I think they’re looking for a really special kind of relationship. 100 years ago, sure, you had a nice husband and that was great. But you also had very profound relationships with all your other people in the local community. And so, the partnership didn’t have the same profound intimacy because it wasn’t all you’ve got. Now your partner’s really all you got. And so we want everything in that partnership.

Ms. Tippett: That’s deadly. [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: So rather than being less serious about that primary relationship, I think we are profoundly more serious about it. I think people are taking this very seriously. There’s never been so many self-help books. There’s never been so many therapies, therapists, and couple’s therapists, and all kinds of support systems.

Ms. Tippett: So this education is maybe just — it’s happening now. It’s happening in real time.

Ms. Fisher: They don’t want to fail. They’ve seen their parents fail. They’ve seen their friends fail. They’re scared of divorce. 67% of singles these days are terrified of the economic and the social and personal fallout from divorce. And we may see a real swing towards really good marriages. Well, you know, I did this study of married people. I asked these married people — it was 1,000 people in the study, a little over 1,000 — “Would you remarry the person that you are married to now?” And 81% said yes. So, and 76% said that they were still madly in love with this person. And I have friends who’ve done other similar studies and found the same data. So, you’re talking to an optimist. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: That’s probably your problem.

[music: “Wet Salt” by Psapp]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with anthropologist of love and sex, Helen Fisher.

[music: “Wet Salt” by Psapp]

Ms. Tippett: Did I read that you were married once but briefly? Is that right?

Ms. Fisher: I was only married for a few months when I was 23. And, yeah. I married the wrong person. And actually the night we decided to divorce was one of our best nights together.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: And then, well, you know, I was a young hippie in graduate school. It was the ‘60s.

Ms. Tippett: OK. [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: And I have then made two very long, powerful, deeply meaningful, and successful relationships. I didn’t marry them, but there was true love.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. So how do you think all of these things you know through your science, through your work, how does it — how have you been able to work with that? Or have you? I mean, is there a limit to when we talk about the insanity part of the reality of love?

Ms. Fisher: I use the — I don’t know if it’s a metaphor or not — of a piece of chocolate cake. You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake. But then when you sit down and eat it, you just feel that rush of joy. And in the same way, I know a lot about love. I know a lot about marriage. I know a lot about adultery and divorce. Know something about the brain. I certainly know — hopefully know something about evolution. But when it hits you, you’re off to the races. There’s been times that I’ve walked towards the phone saying, “Don’t call him, Helen.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: “This isn’t a good idea, Helen. Take control, Helen.” As I’m punching the buttons on the phone and calling him. So, bottom line is, it has helped me, though. There’s been times when I’ve sort of met a man who I could have really loved and almost immediately found out that they loved somebody else. And, I knew immediately, no, no. Don’t go there. Whereas I think if you don’t know how powerful love is, you might try. When in fact, it’s not the right idea. So, knowing what I’ve known has helped me navigate. But the bottom line is, I’m just like everybody else.

Ms. Tippett: Do you have any theories about, or any perspective on — it seems like the world right now, the world a lot of us inhabit, Western, urban, educated people, is full of amazing single women. [laughs] And men — fewer are men who are single. And even fewer men who are as amazing or as appropriate. It feels like the world is out of balance, I think. And again, I may be talking about a certain demographic group. But it doesn’t seem like it’s just 40, 50, and 60-year-olds. It seems like it’s harder for 25-year-olds to know where to look for a mate. So, what perspective do you have on that?

Ms. Fisher: Well, first of all, I wrote a book about the natural talents of women and how they’re changing the world. But I am also a big proponent of men. And I would say there’s just as many amazing men out there as there are women in every age group. I don’t think we understand men at all. We’ve spent 50 years trying to bust a lot of myths about women.

Ms. Tippett: About women, right.

Ms. Fisher: And we’ve spent no years at all busting the myths about men. But I have a lot of data with this Match.com “Singles in America” study that — and other data, too — but, that men are just as romantic as women are. I love — there’s an old quote. It comes from a poem. It’s borrowed from a poem by Ted Hughes. And I’ve doctored it a bit, but it’s: “Men and women are like two feet. They need each other to get ahead.” And we are built to work together, play together, love together, live together. And I meet an awful lot of single men in New York City. And they have brains, and they have feelings. They do love, and they want to be loved. Men fall in love faster than women do because they’re so visual. They want more public displays of affection. They want to introduce a new partner to friends and family sooner. They want to move in sooner. And when you take a look at the brain — and I’ve put a lot of men into a brain scanner, as I put a lot of women — it lights up exactly the same way when they’re in love. And that deep sense of attachment.

I remember, I was recently with a group of women from the major women’s magazines. We were having a business lunch. And there were three women who couldn’t find a man. They were all really good looking, young, smart, educated, going-somewhere women. And none of them could find a man. I said, “You know what? You said there’s no men around.” I said, “I bet all three of you have at least one man in your life right now who would marry you within a week. You’re picky.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah.

Ms. Fisher: And the bottom line is, we’re picky for a reason. We are the ones that are going to carry that baby for nine months. We’re the ones that are going to go through the danger of delivering that child. We are the ones who are going to raise that child. Largely, I mean, the real day-to-day work for the first four years, anyway, in every culture in the world. Now, men are changing diapers these days. No question about it. But still, they don’t do it the way women do. Women have to be picky. But I think we’re going to come to learn that men are just as romantic as women and that women are just as sexual. And that we’re going to cast away these beliefs that men are just fools.

Ms. Tippett: That’s really great. This has just been so — I haven’t even looked at my notes. Oh, maybe just one last thing. And this is me being — using this as kind of a therapy. [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: Oh, wonderful. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: For myself.

Ms. Fisher: I’m not a therapist, but I’ll do what I can. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, just maybe two more questions. So, I’m in my 50s now.

Ms. Fisher: OK. I’m in my 60s.

Ms. Tippett: In your 60s. Yeah. And, I mean, being in your 50s and 60s is just so interesting. And in a way that…

Ms. Fisher: It’s so interesting.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, I mean it’s great.

Ms. Fisher: It is great.

Ms. Tippett: It’s a little awkward, though, on this. It’s uncertain. I mean, the trajectory of all of this is different. But one thing that I’m aware of myself is I feel like one of the things that comes with — has come with age for me is I look back at my younger self and my love relationships. And I was so — I realize how much of it was about wanting to be loved, and how much of the exhilaration was about being loved. And I want to be more intentional moving forward about, like, the adventure of loving.

Ms. Fisher: Mm. I had an adventure recently that was very interesting. I fell immediately for a person in my business world. I would never touch that guy. He was very important in my business world. He’s a happily married guy. And there was no way that Helen Fisher was ever going to put a move on him. Never. And I never did. And for the first time in my life, I would — every time I saw him, my heart would pound, or I’d get a dry mouth. I would try to be a normal person. And I realized that I was going to have to enjoy this feeling all by myself. And I would come home and I would lie down and say, “OK, Helen. Just enjoy the feeling of…” He doesn’t know. He never knew. And try to just enjoy the sensation of adoring somebody from the backwoods, from the back pew in the church. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: And it was a different experience for me to not make any kind of move. Because young girls do that. You know, they say, “Ah.”

Ms. Tippett: Or you’d think that it meant nothing if you couldn’t make the move.

Ms. Fisher: Exactly. So, but I do think that what goes around comes around. And if you and I and other people just spend some time loving somebody. And it’s interesting how they respond. I mean, it — a man and I sort of left each other a couple years ago. And so now, I don’t have that intense need for him. I can love him in the way he should have been loved all along, with a deep attachment, a real understanding for who he is, and just giving him the time he needs with other people, not being at all upset if I don’t hear from him. Released from that passion, you can finally love somebody in some new ways that can be very comforting. Not only for them, but for you. And then you can build a new kind of partnerships with them.

Ms. Tippett: It just feels like what we’re talking about is like this kind of maturation of our collective capacity to…

Ms. Fisher: Too bad I didn’t do it sooner. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, well. That’s how it goes. That’s the maturation, right? I guess, just — oh, finally, I just wanted to note. I did — actually, Lily, my producer, found this blog that you wrote.

Ms. Fisher: OK.

Ms. Tippett: I don’t know if you’ve written on it recently, but for a while, and you always signed it, “Sempre ad astra.” Always to the stars.

Ms. Fisher: Oh, yes.

Ms. Tippett: And I just — when I read that, I thought, “She’s a romantic.”

Ms. Fisher: I am.

Ms. Tippett: “She’s a romantic.” And so I wondered, oh, with this life you’ve lived, and this work you’ve done, how has the meaning of that term, and that thing, being a romantic, evolved for you? Can you talk about how it’s changed over time?

Ms. Fisher: What a great question. Sempre ad astra. It’s my family motto.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, it is?

Ms. Fisher: It’s my family crest. My family apparently goes back to Holland in 1603. And on that family crest, or family tree, it says, “Sempre ad astra.” And I’ve loved it from that moment to this. And it’s what I live. It’s where I live is that term. You’re going to make me cry, so I’ve got to get my act together. [laughs]

Ms. Fisher: Romance. Ask the question again.

Ms. Tippett: How — that romantic in you — your sense of what it means to be romantic or your experience with that, does that evolve…

Ms. Fisher: I guess I’ve just sort of lived it.

Ms. Tippett: You just lived it.

Ms. Fisher: Yeah. I just am a romantic. It’s a pain in the neck. I cry at parades. I look in a baby carriage, and it’s going down the — baby going down the street, and say, “Oh, boy, are you in for some rock and roll.” I go into museums and I see all the little amulets and the pendants, and I think, “Somebody gave that to somebody. 100,000 years ago. There’s a love story there.” I love poetry because it captures the passion of people around the world. It gives me a great sense of unity with all of humanity that ever was, and ever will be.

[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]

Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and she’s chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site Match.com. Her books include Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray and Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]

Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuck.

Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Helen Fisher
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
Binding: Paperback, (320)Pages
Author: Helen Fisher
Publisher: Random House
Binding: Hardcover, (377)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Label: Sonic Pieces
Label: Village Green
Artist: Psapp
Label: The state51 Conspiracy
Artist: I Am Robot & Proud
Label: Darla Records

Share a Reflection

  • Josh

    Helen, thank you for your research, creativity and wisdom, and Krista, as always, for probing the depths of this human experience in this podcast. This conversation resonated with me in particular because it touches on something of a disconnect that I’ve been feeling in my own life for quite a while. I’ve found myself falling in love quicker, more prone to grow attached, more willing to accommodate and more apt to perform romantic gestures than my dating partners. And yet the narrative that’s been created through countless magazine articles, click-bait stories and laments in bars from friends, is that men are distant, myopic in their interests in physicialty and inconsistent when it comes to dating. I’ve known plenty of these men, but I’ve also dated these women. And yet the cultural narratives of how men act and think and feel continue to circulate, so Ive found myself feeling alone feel somewhat awry and different by inhabiting what our society has typically labeled “female” roles in the dating world. I’m also fully aware that as a man, there are millions of years of privilege behind me, and much lived experience that I’ll never understand—experience that permeate these dating interactions, so in the grand scheme of things, I realize that I’ve benefited throughout my life because of patriarchy than these feelings of being misunderstood.

    But I also think that when we interact with one another as fully nuanced, multi-faceted human beings rather than iterations of entrenched personas, we expetience and learn more about the grand mosaic that is humanity. And I think dating presents a unique opportunity to accomplish this, if we come to those spaces with the idea that men can exhibit more than what is expected.

  • Molly Murray

    Love this conversation. Thanks so much to both of you for your insights. I listened to the unedited, and heard Ms. Fisher mention that there are not people forced into marriage in the world these days. This is just not true. Last year I got to see a heartbreaking film about a young Afghani woman who fled a forced marriage. With her artistry and connections, she was able to beat this system, but many of her friends remained trapped in it, sold into unwanted marriages in order to financially support their families. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5278928/

  • OnTheBayou

    Mix these chocolate cake life ingredients: I turn 71 next month, avid amateur anthropologist, and with the internet now at my fingertips, wowsers. Children, grandchildren, natch. In my middle years, had sex with 99 woman and I made love with, was in love with, 6 more. Women, sex, and love have mandated creative writings, reflections, and made my life so incredibly emotionally fecund. Pain included.

    Now, a whole new experience, which parallels some of both your experiences. Over a year ago, a woman messaged me on Plenty of Fish, I’d like to be your friend, I can’t offer more. She lives several hours away and is estranged from her husband…….although they live together because finances prevent a divorce. We have met a few times. We are so addicted to one another, we love each other as much as any of us have experienced, yet no sex. OK, OK, we’ve messed around a couple of times. But that’s not the foundation of our relationship.

    We have happened to have discussed variants of many of the perspectives brought forth here. How love and expectations change. I see the caring love that my ex-wife has for her much older third husband, obviously companionship. And I care about his well being, as do all my kids and grandkids.

    Sexual and emotional connection is built into our DNA, and it often controls us in ways we can’t grasp. As you said, here. I’ll leave with this observation: Arthur Schopenhauer observed almost two hundred years ago, sex controls us:

    “The sexual impulse in all its degrees and nuances plays not only on the stage and in novels, but also in the real world, where, next to the love of life, it shows itself the strongest and most powerful of motives, constantly lays claim to half the powers and thoughts of the younger portion of mankind, to the ultimate goal of almost all human efforts, interrupts the most serious occupations every hour, sometimes embarrasses for a while even the greatest minds, does not hesitate to intrude with its trash, interfering with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of men of learning, knows how to slip its love letters and locks of hair even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts, and no less devises daily the most entangled and the worst actions, destroys the most valuable relationships, breaks the firmest bond, demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, rank, and happiness, nay, robs those who are otherwise honest of all conscience, makes those who have hitherto been faithful, traitors; accordingly on the whole, appears as a malevolent demon that strives to pervert, confuse, and overthrow everything.”

  • David Orenstein

    While I tend to dislike the innate spirituality and religion of this show, I am drawn to the conversations, if for no other reason than to understand those with faith; their motivations and values. As a fellow atheist and anthropologist, I was so happy to listen this morning and to hear Dr. Fisher. Her deeply kind and rational explanations for much of our brain-driven primate behavior which shows itself in the outcome of culture, was clear and reason-based without needing faith to understand human motivation or action. D.

  • flowerplough

    Doubt there’s any Peabody Award consideration for this particular show, ladies. Gays? Lesbians? Major part of public broadcasting’s/The Democratic Party’s base? Heard 2/3 of the show on the radio, skimmed thru the transcript above – passing on
    our DNA, reproducing, nature, instinct, “some girl would see some cute boy at the other side of the water hole”, rules, taboos, community and religious support… Totally agree with your “heteronormativity”, as I believe “they” call it, since heterosexuality is normal, but am guessing “they” won’t.

    And, P.S. – birth control, including abortion, how’d you blow past that? Has been my admittedly-limited experience that many younger women, freed from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ fear of bearing bastard children, are becoming young men, smearing it around in a manner many might have once called sluttish.

    And P.P.S. – thanks for being brave enough to allow comment. NPR’s shows, most of ’em, wussed out horribly a couple-two-t’ree years ago in dropping their comment sections – glad to take the taxpayers’ money for that last 10-15% percent of their budget, but not so happy to give the taxpayers a voice.

    • BWF

      On Being is a PRX show, not an NPR show (it may happen to run on stations that are also NPR affiliates, but that’s not the same thing).

      In addition to that, the fact that you blame children for the circumstances of their birth destroys your credibility.

      • flowerplough

        “blame children for the circumstances of their birth”?

        In the past, the word bastard was the standard term in both legal and non-legal use for ‘an illegitimate child’. I’ll edit that part of my comment if you’re overly offended. As to my credibility, I’m not selling anything, just commenting on a broadcast interview. Relax.

  • Steve Cabana

    As a man here is what I have learned about relationships. Women do not need me to solve problems for them, when they share them with me as an intimate partner. What they need from me is not a great listener who remembers every detail of what they say. They need me to be a committed witness so they can hear themselves and solve their problems through my presence with them. In certain circumstances and in certain ways woman need to fight with the man who is important to them in their life. Woman want to fight with someone whose strength, knowledge of himself, level of self control, maturity, wisdom and insight makes fighting safe for them.

    Here is some contextual information to understand the biological differences between men and woman which was not discussed in this interview: Processing “Male brains utilize nearly seven times more gray matter for activity while female brains utilize nearly ten times more white matter. What does this mean?
    Gray matter areas of the brain are localized. They are information- and action processing centers in specific splotches in a specific area of the brain. This can translate to a kind of tunnel vision when they are doing something. Once they are deeply engaged
    in a task or game, they may not demonstrate much sensitivity to other people or their surroundings. White matter is the networking grid that connects the brain’s gray matter and other processing centers with one another. This profound brain-processing difference is
    probably one reason you may have noticed that girls tend to more quickly transition between tasks than boys do. The gray-white matter difference may explain why, in adulthood, females are great multi-taskers, while men excel in highly task-focused projects.
    Some dominant neurochemicals are serotonin, which, among other things, helps us sit still; testosterone, our sex and aggression chemical; estrogen, a female growth and reproductive chemical; and oxytocin, a bonding-relationship chemical.
    In part, because of differences in processing these chemicals, males on average tend to be less inclined to sit still for as long as females and tend to be more physically impulsive and aggressive. Additionally, males produce and process less of the bonding
    chemical oxytocin than females. Overall, a major takeaway of chemistry differences is to realize that our boys at times need different strategies for stress release than our girls.
    Structural Differences: A number of structural elements in the human brain differ between males and females.“Structural” refers to actual parts of the brain and the way they are built, including their size and/or mass.Females often have a larger hippocampus, our human memory center. Females also often have a higher density of neural connections into the hippocampus. As a result, girls
    and women tend to input or absorb more sensorial and emotive information than males do. By “sensorial” we mean information to and from all five senses. If you note your observations over the next months of boys and girls and women and men, you will find
    that females tend to sense a lot more of what is going on around them throughout the day, and they retain that sensorial information more than men.Additionally, before boys or girls are born, their brains developed with different hemispheric divisions of labor. The right and left hemispheres of the male and female brains are not set up exactly the same way. For instance, females tend to have verbal
    centers on both sides of the brain, while males tend to have verbal centers on only the left hemisphere. This is a significant difference. Girls tend to use more words when discussing or describing incidence, story, person, object, feelings, or place. Males not
    only have fewer verbal centers in general but also, often, have less connectivity between their word centers and their memories or feelings. When it comes to discussing feelings and emotions and senses together, girls tend to have an advantage, and they tend to
    have more interest in talking about these things. Men do not share this interest and find it annoying.
    Blood Flow and Brain Activity: While we are on the subject of emotional processing, another difference worth looking
    closely at is the activity difference between male and female brains. The female brain, in part thanks to far more natural blood flow throughout the brain at any given moment (more white matter processing), and because of a higher degree of blood flow in a
    concentration part of the brain called the cingulate gyrus, will often ruminate on and revisit emotional memories more than the male brain. Males, in general, are designed a bit differently. Males tend, after reflecting more briefly on an emotive memory, to analyze it somewhat, then move onto the next task. During this process, they may also choose to change course and do something active and
    unrelated to feelings rather than analyze their feelings at all. Thus, observers may mistakenly believe that boys avoid feelings in comparison to girls or move to problem solving too quickly.”

    So how does this biology translate to life? A mature man is slow to anger, quick to forgive, and you can’t move him easily off his bubble of stability, balance, and peace as a grounded masculine presence. Given how our brains work as men, we tend to experience our emotions one at a time – simple emotions like anger, sadness, grief, fear and joy. We don’t have feelings in the way a woman has feelings. When men get clean on their emotions they present themselves to the world as a confident, honorable, respected, masculine presence in all of their relationships.

    There is a currency in mens communication and that currency is acceptance. Acceptance is really important to men because the most important concept is team going back to our primitive ancestral brain. Five years go by, or twenty years and you see that guy again, after all these years and that relationship is still present. It is still there. Men can communicate with a nod, with curse symbols, a couple words, and still work as an effective team. A lot of information is packed into these short bursts of communication. Woman don’t have that. If you look at a woman’s cell phone, who she talks to the most are the most important relationships in her life. And a lot of woman’s communication is expressive and very often there is no information in expression. A man experiences all this expression as confusing. It is not like talk to another man. Could you please stick to the topic? Why do you have to wander so much? Lets get to it? Just give men the short sweet needs you have? Men listen to other men to get actionable information. That is not how we should listen to women.

    From a male perspective what do we value most in the woman who are our life partners? A wise man chooses a woman as a life partner who inspires him to be a better man. What makes a man a better man? A woman who supports his purpose in life which lets him play full out giving his best to it. A woman who accepts a man for what he wants to become and will do whatever she can to help him become it. A woman who accepts her man as the man who I am and the man who I am not. A woman who is on his team, which makes him a better team player, husband, partner, leader, father, son. In return that man values his woman for her powerful contribution to him as a man. A man must be responsible for everything in his world. Women do not respect, admire, or value men who take on the role of victim. A mature masculine man must create a way for his woman to be completely authentic with him, and know that he loves her and accepts her. These type of relationships are tightly bound and will last. Romance and romantic love does not necessarily maintain these qualities of even have them in the first place.

    • Amber Joplin

      Very interesting information and perspective.

  • laura miller

    I tried listening to this show twice but just couldn’t take the guest’s ignorance and point-of-view. Advocating hook-ups because “most people” have access to birth control? At a time when Planned Parenthood is being defunded? And “most people” know of sexually transmitted diseases? Ever look at the HIV rates in places like DC? And her opening characterization of “10,000 years” of human history as having the same family and gender relations based on “farming” communities is equally an uninformed, sweeping generalization (a sole male bread winner with women not working…in farming communities?!). I appreciate KT moving the show towards a diverse range of guests but this take on “sex and the brain” sounds more like a fatuous sell to create a never-ending cientele for match.com.

  • Rebecca Narum

    I have to say I really appreciated listening to this show. What caught me most was the conversation about community from the perspective of my generation. I am a young women, in her mid-20s who has been living as an expat for the last four years and prior to that was moving frequently around the US. Since I started my somewhat “nomadic-life” what has propelled me has been the desire to see the world and experience new things, but also to find a community where I feel I belong and to run away from the social pressures I felt so strongly growing up and didn’t want to succumb to. For much time, I have enjoyed the “freedom” to not be committed or attached to anything, to connect with people but not feel responsibility towards them. It has only been in the last year that I have noticed a shift inside myself. I have realized the actual lack of freedom in this and the beauty and freedom found only in relationships that develop over time (everything in life has a paradox in it!). But, as Helen spoke about in the show, as I have realized my need for the community (which I was initially running away from), I now see my new community and my approach to it being developed in a different light. More conscientious about what I expect and want. I am questioning a lot what this means and looks like. I realize the things I have missed in the last years during my “nomadic life” which I had during my youth but also am trying to apply what I have learned since then. I have expectations for people I am in communion with and feel it is important to hold them accountable as well as myself. I have realized the importance of community for personal growth, it is through good and bad experiences with people close to you that you really begin to learn about yourself and can improve yourself. But this can only happen over time and when people are open, transparent and willing to work for this. It’s a topic I am very busy with in my own life at the moment and it’s been beautiful to see it unfolding.

  • BellaTerra66

    I don’t listen to On Being very often but lately — well, you’re on my favorite radio station when I’m out and about lately. I enjoyed this one with Helen Fisher immensely. [So much better than the one with Richard Rohr — which was SO all about him. :-)] Just for the record, you both got the quote by Margaret Mead incorrect. It is: “Until death do us part was fine when we lived to be only 30. Now that we can live to be 90, we need three marriages: one to leave home with, one to raise children with, and one to grow old with.” PS: now that I’m home for the day — I’m going to listen to this again via your web site. Great interview/talk.

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  • Jenny Harry

    I had no religious education at all. I grew up in an entirely lily-white Christian community in Connecticut. And when it came time for Sunday School, my father said to me and to my twin sister, “I’d be happy to take you to the church on my way to play tennis, but you’re going to have to find your own ride home.”

  • Candace Palmerlee

    Dear Krista. I have listened to nearly every one of your On Being podcasts over the last few years. The are a ray of light and a source of wisdom in a changing and often troubling world. I have never been disappointed in your choice of interviewees. Until now. While Helen Fisher is an important part of the conversation on Love and Marriage, she is a very one-sided part at best. I found her definition of love as being driven by the ‘fundamental human drive to procreate’ extremely small-minded and hetero-biased. It does not represent those in loving, lasting, same-sex relationships, or those in heterosexual relationships without the desire to have children. These segments of the population, and their love, deserve to be explored and represented if she calls herself an authority. Further, Ms. Fisher’s reasoning that men do not google their dates, but women do, because men don’t want to be accused of being a stalker, is rife with male-bias, and it is strange to hear such a disconnected view from a woman. Any woman who has ever googled her male date will tell you, she did it scouring for hints to make sure she’s not going out with someone who could be a physical threat to her in some way. While I recognize that many men have developed a sensitivity to being viewed as a stalker, both of these dynamics originate in a culture that has perpetuated rape for centuries. This was the first time Krista, that I have heard you interview someone with your own bias a present part of the conversation, and without pushing someone to explore a topic past its “traditional” boundaries.

  • divadarya

    Simply, I adored this podcast. I listened to the unedited version twice.

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  • What Helen Fisher said about living in a world with no boundaries was exactly WHY I wrote my book, “The Neuroscience of Dating.” I believe that we need more tools to understand good emotional health and the brain so that we can make smarter choices in dating. We have this vital research via relational neuroscience but it hasn’t been applied to books on how to date. Thanks for this interview Krista Tippett! Please do more like it!

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