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Lecture examines brain chemistry, romantic attraction

Explorer. Builder. Director. Negotiator.

Each of us can be characterized by the names Helen Fisher has given to behavior styles associated with chemical systems in the brain. That biological temperament helps you to decide whom to love, Fisher said during a talk May 5 at Watters Theater.

“What does somebody mean when they say, ‘We had good chemistry?’” she asked.

Fisher, a research professor and a member of the Center for Human Evolution Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the evolution and biology of love, sexuality and attraction. She has written five books on the subject and has been featured on shows such as 20/20 and The View. Fisher’s talk was presented by the University’s Evolutionary Studies Program.

In previous research, Fisher has found three brain systems for human reproductive behavior: sex drive, romantic love and attachment. Any one of the three systems is able to start a relationship, she said.

Fisher’s latest efforts are with Chemistry.com; she serves as chief scientific adviser for the dating site, an offshoot of Match.com.

“The brain system is going to be triggered, but why does one person trigger that system and not another?” she said. “Match.com came to me and asked that question. I said that I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

Fisher examined the issue, tied brain chemicals to personality traits and conducted a study of about 40,000 people. “Explorers” are impulsive, energetic, creative men and women who are expressive of dopamine. Examples would be Angelina Jolie and President Obama.

“When he talked about change, we felt like he meant it,” Fisher said of Obama. “It’s part of his DNA.”

“Builders,” expressive of serotonin, are managerial, cautious, loyal and calm. Think Colin Powell or Tiger Woods. “Directors,” expressive of testosterone, are direct, tough-minded, independent and competitive. John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton served as Fisher’s examples. “Negotiators,” expressive of  estrogen and oxytocin, are imaginative, agreeable and intuitive, Fisher said. Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton fall into this category.

“(Clinton) is emotionally expressive, can’t stop talking … and well known for saying ‘I feel your pain,’” she said.

The Clintons are an example of opposites attracting, Fisher said. Negotiators tend to be drawn to directors and vice versa.  But they are the exceptions in a “funnel of love” in which potential partners are weeded out first by things such as looks, voices and economic needs, Fisher said.

“At some point in this funnel, your basic body chemistry is pulling you toward certain kinds of people,” she said. “They are drawn to people like themselves.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08