Sex & Relationships

Talking to Love Chemistry Expert Dr. Helen Fisher

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Senior-Planet-Helen-FisherYou know it when you feel it – that spark of attraction, that chill down your spine.

You may feel it now toward your current partner or recall feeling it with a past one. We call it “chemistry” and accept it as a signal: This must be love.

But who can define chemistry?

Helen Fisher can not only define it, she can dissect it.

For years Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who also serves as chief scientific  advisor for online-dating site Match.com, has delved deep inside our brains. She’s imaged them and watched what happens when people are madly in love – or feel harshly rejected.

Senior Planet caught up with Fisher, 67, just in time for Valentine’s Day to pick her brain about the chemistry of love.

So, what is that chemistry between people – and is it always instant?

It’s not necessarily love at first sight; it can happen anytime. It might be the first date or the fourth year. I call it the brain chemistry of romantic love – I’ve seen it in action in scans of the human brain. We’ve put about 100 people into brain scanners, and among those were some who were happily in love, some who’d been together long-term, some who’d been rejected.

What we saw among the madly in love was that a tiny part of the midbrain, the VTA, actually makes dopamine, and dopamine is a natural stimulant. It’s what gives you, when you are madly in love, the motivation to win this partner. It’s the dopamine in the brain that gives you that rush when you feel romantic love.

Is chemistry different for different people, or does everyone experience it in much the same way?

Some people might not know how to describe it. But the sensation in the brain is the same. It’s the same brain chemistry for men and women and for gay and straight.

Can you nudge chemistry along or does it have an expiration date?

There are ways to trigger feelings of romantic love. One is to go do novel things together. For a couple who’s been in a long relationship, if they take a long trip together, the novelty of the trip is likely to push up the dopamine, and that boosts the chemistry. If you want to feel a deep sense of attachment, rather than just chemistry, you should stay in touch. Hug often. It will drive up the oxytocin [a hormone involved in bonding].

Is chemistry more common with age or less?

In my work with Match, we polled singles in America – every age group, 21 to 71 plus; this year, we polled 5,481 singles and 1095 married. Of those 1095 singles, 43 percent had been married more than 20 years. It was called the Singles in America study.

When I asked, “Do you believe in love at first sight,” I found older people saying yes. Older people tend to say they have experienced love at first sight. If you live long enough, you are going to have the experience.

Another question was, “What would make you happier?” Among the answers were more sex, more romance. Older people were just as likely to say more sex and more romance as younger people.

We also asked, “Would you make a committed relationship with someone who offered you everything, but you were not in love with.”  The people least likely to say yes were those over 70. It’s the young who are willing to compromise on romantic love. My hypothesis is, the young really have to reproduce. You get to our age…

We asked: “Would you make a committed relationship with someone you did not find sexually attractive?” We found that as you get older you are no more likely to compromise than when you were young. These are brain systems that don’t really change with age. The ability to fall in love is a primitive part of the brain.

You can fall madly in love when you are 16 or 66. But the young are a little more likely to kill themselves because they are a little less rational. The bottom line is, older people are looking for the same things as younger ones: Someone who treats me with respect, someone I can confide in.

What does “aging with attitude” mean to you?

My attitude as I age is one of absolute fascination with the life course. I am fascinated with the idea of getting older. I’m more comfortable in my skin. I feel I have less to lose when I make a giant mistake. I have just as much energy as when I was younger, and all these years have brought me knowledge, self-confidence and a sense of calm that I really am enjoying. 

More love? Read these articles:
Top 5 Dating Sites for Seniors
How to Set Up Your Online Dating Profile
11 Dos and Don’ts for Writing a Great Online Dating Profile
Dish the Web: Chocolate-Strawberry Valentine’s Cake recipe

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