Helen Fisher TED Talk on Romantic Love

Alright, so I know that I (J) have not posted anything on this blog for over a month, but that doesn’t mean that I am not constantly thinking about open relationships and non-monogamy. I just don’t have time to post my thoughts as often as I would like.  

I often listen to and read articles that present opposing viewpoints in order to deconstruct the messages and remind myself of the societal messages that reinforced my societally expected monogamous life for 22+ years before embarking on the difficult but rewarding journey of creating an open relationship.

I recently watched a TED Talk by Helen Fisher that stirred up a powerful emotional response because I was just so taken aback by her point of view.  The TED Talk is available at http://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_tells_us_why_we_love_cheat.html and I strongly encourage anyway who follows this blog to go and watch the TED Talk because it is fascinating. It is fascinating not because of the ideas that Ms. Fisher presents but rather the manner in which she presents her ideas.

To get the most out of the remainder of this post you will almost certainly need to watch Ms. Fisher’s TED Talk. Ok, so now that you have watched that. . . here we go. I am going to list off the problems that I see with Ms. Fisher’s TED Talk.

1) Ms. Fisher is an ANTHROPOLOGIST. I expect an anthropologist to more carefully consider the way that science is impacted by cultural ideals and values. It seems to me that Helen Fisher set out to prove specific things rather than conducting research and then drawing conclusions based on what she found. Helen Fisher seems to want to prove that 1) romantic love exists, and 2) it exists as a means of bonding a man and a woman who can then have sex and raise a child. Ms. Fisher’s entire TED Talk merely reinforces long-believed scientific theories about men and women and relationships and the reasons for them and does not add anything new to this discussion or present the information in a new or thoughtful way. Even if Ms. Fisher is not a cultural anthropologist (I don’t know what kind of anthropologist she is) I would at least expect her to acknowledge the impact that her beliefs and that society at large can have on the research that she chooses to conduct and the conclusions that she ultimately draws from the research she conducts.

2) Adultery. Ms. Fisher makes a comment about how women often ask her, “Why is it that so many more men than women are adulterous?” Ms. Fisher responds to this comment by saying (paraphrasing here), “Who is that these people think that men cheat with? It is simple math that if all these men are cheating then there must be just as many women cheating. It is simple math!” I find this comment disturbing in several ways. First, it is not simple math that just because a man cheats there is necessarily a woman cheating.  Many men may be cheating with the same women who are cheating or perhaps men are cheating on their partners with women who are not cheating (either because they are single or in open relationships) or, perhaps, men are cheating with other men! It is disappointing to me that Helen Fisher so greatly simplified and misused statistics because I expect more from a professional researcher.  

3) Orgasm and Oxytocin: Ms. Fisher has a brief discussion about the fact that men and women experience a release of oxytocin into their bodies upon orgasm. This is absolutely true and there is significant evidence to back her up on this point. Her conclusion from this is that men and women are not really capable of having casual sexual experiences with people because the release of oxytocin will cause a bonding whether or not they are prepared for that. I think I can safely say to our readers. . . SERIOUSLY?!?! K & I have experienced lots of very deep and meaningful sex and we have also experienced amazing orgasms where we would not be distraught/depressed if we never saw the person again. Once again, this seems like an attempt by Helen Fisher to draw a conclusion that supports her worldview rather than questioning all of the evidence that suggests that the release of oxytocin really is not a very powerful bonding agent (think for example of the high rate of divorce, people who have casual sex partners, swingers, etc.). What Ms. Fisher ultimately concludes from her discussion about the release of oxytocin being associated with orgasm is that it is meant to bond a man and woman together so that they are able to raise a child. However, Ms. Fisher acknowledges in a separate point in her TED Talk that the strong initial feelings of being in a new relationship (often called New Relationship Energy) usually fades in 1-2 years. Considering a gestation period of 9 months for humans, it hardly seems that the release of oxytocin being associated with orgasm supports the idea that men and women will be bonded long enough to raise a child at least in terms of how we view child-rearing today. (Generally it is not considered sufficient for a man to help raise his child until the child is 3-15 months old before leaving.) I think this is yet another point in the talk where Helen Fisher takes solid scientific data and uses it to support her view about relationships and the “purpose” of romantic love.

4) The part of the TED Talk that inspired this entire blog post is the part that follows. However, I must preface this part with a little information about Helen Fisher’s theory of love. Fisher believes that humans have three different brain systems at play when people are in love: lust, romantic love, and attachment. She explains that the three brain systems are not always aligned and that it is possible for people to feel intense feelings in one or more areas for different people at the same time: “You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner while you feel intense romantic feelings for someone else, while you feel a sex drive for people unrelated to these other partners. In short we are capable of loving more than one person at a time. In fact, you can lie in bed at night and swing between deep feelings of attachment to one person to deep feelings of romantic love for someone else. In short, I don’t think that we are an animal that was built to be happy. We are an animal that was built to reproduce.” Ahhh! Oh no, Helen Fisher, WHAT HAPPENED?! I thought Fisher was about to make a profound breakthrough about how our society doesn’t support our natural urges, but instead, she concludes that we are not meant to be happy! Instead of questioning the societal norms that make this unacceptable, she concludes that humans were not “built to be happy.” It is because of this statement that I argue that Ms. Fisher is caught in a paradigm; she has conducted scientific research that causes her to conclude that humans are capable of loving multiple people at the same time but instead of questioning the societal norms that make this unacceptable she merely concludes that humans were not built to be happy. Why does Ms. Fisher (an anthropologist) so quickly jump to the conclusion that simply because humans are capable of loving multiple people, they are also not meant to be happy?  I would like to use the research that Ms. Fisher has gathered which has caused her to conclude that humans are capable of loving more than one person and then ask the question, “If we are capable of loving more than one person at a time, then why is it so frowned upon by society to act on those urges?”

I think that Ms. Fisher’s TED Talk is a perfect example of the sort of scientific research that perpetuates a paradigm rather than questioning the underlying rationales of the paradigm. This statement is somewhat circular in the sense that a paradigm is exactly that; it is the underlying framework that merely perpetuates our worldview rather than questioning it. The research that Ms. Fisher does and the conclusions that she draws from her research is clearly influenced by her deeply held beliefs about romantic love and the goal of attaining long-term one-man-one-woman relationships.

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