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Love, Lust and Online Dating

by Katie de Klee / 23.10.2013

Of all the things that drive us in life, sex and love are two surely of the strongest. But who really knows why the hell we choose to be with the people we do? Who knows why men and women (and women and women, and men and men) fall madly in love with each other. And madness it must be. We live in a dangerous society, where everyday crimes of passion are sending people to the edge of reason as well as to the grave, and yet love is still one of our biggest blind spots. None of us understand anything about it. But, fear not, for the Dr of Love is in town. Dr Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and love expert from New York (possibly America’s most romantic city) has been brought to Joburg this week to help us understand the evolution of love.

For the past couple of decades PAST, the Palaeontological Scientific Trust, based in Johannesburg, has been bringing together scientists, business, government and communities to support the research of our origin, and of our common humanity. Mother Africa is the birthplace of the human species (the Cradle of Humankind is just a few kilometers from Johannesburg) and even now – spread out across the globe as we are, brought up in different cultures with different languages and religions, we are all 99.9% biologically the same.

This year’s PAST keynote lecture was held last night by Dr Helen Fisher. Dr Fisher has spent years researching the science of our sexuality, why and how we choose a mating partner and the effects of love on the brain. Most importantly her research has been proving that love is a universal human condition, and not a cultural construct. Before she flew into South Africa Dr Fisher gave Mahala the chance to chat to her about the evolution of love.

According to Fisher’s research, humans have evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: the sex drive; romantic love; and attachment. The main characteristics of ‘romantic love’ are craving for an emotional connection that is deeper than sex, intense motivation to win the person over, and intrusive, obsessive thinking about them. Then there are other several standard characteristics that people all over the world describe. Feeling intense energy, elation when things are going well, mood swings and a terrible despair when things are going badly. Real physical symptoms: butterflies in the stomach, pounding heart, dry mouth, wobbly knees (at least in the beginning). And sexual possessiveness. Lastly, the feeling is involuntary: it comes, as the French poet Stendhal said, “like a fever, quite independent of the will”.

Studies have shown that the symptoms of love can last between 18 months and 3 years, and that it can be chemically active from over a year in the brain. As part of Fisher’s research into love they put lovers through MRI brain scanners and showed that even people in their 50s and 60s who were in long term relationships had activity in brain regions linked with love, just as people who had just fallen in love had.

“The only real difference was that in the new relationships we found a lot of brain activity in regions linked with anxiety. In the long-term lovers there was no longer activity in those brain regions, instead there was new activity in brain regions linked with calm.”

But ‘love’ is rooted in science not romance: it is essentially reproductive drive. “I think the sex drive evolved to get you out there looking for a whole different range of partners. I think romantic love evolved to help you focus your mating energy on just one at a time. And that attachment evolved to stick with this person at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.”

Modern society is changing the dynamics of our relationships. We are moving forwards towards the kind of relationships that existed thousands of years ago. “In hunter-gatherer societies women were extremely powerful: they went to work together to gather fruits and vegetables and came home with 60-80% of the evening meal. The double income family was the rule and anthropologists think that women were just as dominant as men in hunting and gathering societies.”

“Then about 10,000 years ago we began to settle down on the farm and women lost a lot of their ancient power. It was men’s job now to move the rocks and fell the trees and plough the land and bring the produce to local markets and come back with the equivalent of money. In farming societies women could no longer go off and do all their gathering; they had to do secondary jobs of picking, weeding, pruning, preparing the evening meal and having lots of babies.

“In these societies women couldn’t walk out of a bad marriage, and along with the farming tradition we saw the rise of all kinds of beliefs about what a woman is: less competent at business, a virgin at marriage, all those kinds of things.”

One of the great modern, social trends is that women are returning in great numbers to the job markets in cultures around the world, and along with that we see the rise of women sexually, socially and economically. “We are moving forward to symmetrical marriages.”

Modern society is also throwing technology into the meeting-a-mate methods. Dr Helen Fisher is the chief scientific advisor to both Match.com and Chemistry.com. More and more people are turning to the cyber space to meet prospective partners. So how is the Internet changing how we form relationships?

“In many respects, oddly enough, meeting online is a little less artificial than walking into a bar. The beauty of online dating is it is a lot cheaper than walking into a bar and you can do it in your pyjamas at any time of day or night. Most of the world is really stressed with lack or time. So that’s a second thing. And third it enables you to kiss fewer frogs.”

Online, men mostly lie about how much money they make, and women lie about how old they are and how much they weigh. Things you’ll quickly discover on meeting.

When you walk into a bar and meet someone you don’t know whether they are interested in a relationship and you don’t know anything about their background. “With online dating you know some very important things about a person before you ever go out with them. They’re on the site, so at least you know that they want to meet somebody.”

The problem is that this kind of service should not be called online ‘dating’, it should be called online ‘introducing’. “You’ve got to get offline absolutely as soon as possible and meet the person, because the human brain is built to size up a person by looking at them, talking with them, watching the way they move their body and what they say. It’s a great service for introducing, it’s not a good service for staying forever online and never going out.”

We don’t always have the best understanding of what we want. But online dating websites are now building that into their algorithms. So although you might say you like athletic people, they’ll suggest someone yet who isn’t sporty but fits your other interests. Computers are learning to second-guess us. “What we think we want is a general ball park, but it certainly isn’t the whole game.”

The Internet, however, is encouraging over-consumption: it gives you the feeling that you have endless possibilities and makes you choosier, and you choose no one or feel you are compromising.

“I have data that shows the old are choosier that the young. The least likely to make any kind of compromise are people over the age of 60. And the young were the most likely to.

“I think the reason is the young have to reproduce. Just think about the young guy, 37, meets a girl who is the right size and shape, his parents adore her, she is fine in bed, dying to marry him, from the same background, same interests, and would make a great wife. But the person he is in love with is from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong age; he could never bring her home to introduce to his parents. He’s going to pick the women who’ll give him healthy babies and make a good wife.

“The young need to compromise, the older you get the less you need to compromise.”

Helen Fisher and her colleagues have done brain scanning in China to make sure the studies came up with the same results as those in the States. “Really, love is a human thing. It’s like studying the fear system. Study it among Americans or South Africans or among the people of Guinea, you find the same basic brain systems. We all have the same brain. We all have different cultural experiences so how we define love, when we think we should fall in love and how we express our love will vary from one person to another and one culture to another. That’s why I like using love poetry in my talks, poetry across the world says the same things.”

The 9th Standard Bank/PAST keynote lecture and second Philip Tobias lecture, presented by Dr Helen Fisher was held at 6.30pm, 22 October, Wits Great Hall, Braamfontein.

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