Dr Love: Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher

CHEMISTRY: Dr Helen Fisher.
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CHEMISTRY: Dr Helen Fisher.

As one of the world's leading experts on love, author and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has spent her life studying the whys, hows, and what-on-earths of human romance. She talks to Emily Simpson.

Take a look at your hand. Is your index finger longer than your ring finger, shorter, or about the same? When you doodle, do you draw geometric shapes, squiggly lines or little hearts? Do you embrace adventure or would you rather stay home and play Connect Four? Do you like tacos? Are you getting tired of these questions? You want them to stop?

Okay. That was a small, only slightly creative taste of the questionnaire designed by biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher for the dating site chemistry.com. More than 13 million people have completed Fisher's questionnaire (see below) in the quest to establish what kind of person they are and what kind of date might offer them their best shot at happiness.

Yes, we live in an age rife with personality quiz mumbo jumbo, however this one holds more validity than most. Firstly, its creator has cred: New York-based Fisher is not just chief scientific advisor to match.com, but a well-respected academic and the author of five best-sellers on the evolution of sex and love – an area she's been studying intensely since the 70s. She likes to scan a lot of brains.

Secondly, there's a lot at stake here. People aren't just goofing around on Facebook with this quiz; they're looking for potential life partners, the co-parent of their future child, maybe. And, of course, there's big business involved.

Chemistry.com is owned by IAC, a multi-billion dollar company that also owns match.com and Tinder. The company launched in the 90s when online dating carried a loserish stigma. Ten years later, people were viewing it as an okay pursuit – for other people. "Now, people are saying 'it's for me too'," says Fisher, on the phone from New York. "In just a few years, something that people felt was really artificial has become the way to go."

As an anthropologist, Fisher is fascinated by this epic cultural shift. And equally so as a recently single 69-year-old. "I did online dating a couple of times and met really nice people," she says. "But both times I sort of went back to my old lifestyle of hanging around with my friends. I really am planning on doing it again though. It really is a great way to meet people."

I wondered what a scholar of evolution would think of Tinder, with its swipe-to-the-left mentality. One giant step for mankind? Or…

"I really like Tinder," enthuses Fisher. "I've never been on it – I'm too old – but what I like about it is that the person is in the neighbourhood and you're going to meet them right away.

"You know, looks do count. Long before Tinder, you look at someone – too tall, too short, too scruffy too scrubbed – and they're out. The human brain is the human brain. It's not changed in 200,000 years. You might find someone on Tinder, but once you meet up in a bar or for coffee or whatever, the brain clicks into action and you begin to court, to smile, flirt, listen and touch – the way people have always done those things."

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Though she has had two very long-term relationships – one of them lasting 20 years – Fisher has never married. "I had a lot of opportunities to marry and have children but I never thought it would be fair to have a child because I've always been so involved in my work. I really am a workaholic. I go out every night because if I stay in I'll just keep working. So I go to anything from the theatre to a documentary to a coffee shop to see a friend. New York's a thrilling city and I'm a person who actually uses it."

Like a true online dater, she adds: "I also love to camp out and hike."

Raised in Connecticut, Fisher had a "lucky, lucky" upbringing that was both affluent and liberal. Her father was an executive at Time magazine. Her mother was a painter, poet and first-class flower arranger. Their house, surrounded by colonial-style mansions, was a modernist glass box, the heat came up from the floor, the hi fi system rocked, privacy was afforded by an abundance of land on the other side of the glass walls. Fisher was "a good girl with a lot of freedom". She went to boarding school and got excellent grades. Her father gave her books about sex in an era when it was rare to acknowledge it.

But perhaps the greatest gift to her future career came from nature: Fisher is an identical twin. From the moment she was born, every person who met her and her sister was searching for the two things that Fisher has gone on to spend her life studying: human similarity – and difference. "When you're a twin, everybody asks: do you have the same cavities in your teeth? Do you have the same friends? Do you like the same food? So long before I learned there was a nature/nurture controversy, I was very busy, even as a small child, trying to figure out how much of my behaviour was biological and how much of it came from my experiences."

For the record: her twin is now a hot air balloon pilot and grandmother who lives in France.

Fisher also timed her birth well for an anthropologist – born in 1945 she came of age in the 1960s. It was the sexual revolution. "And the drug revolution! The first time someone offered me any marijuana I thought it was something for gangsters in Chicago. These things were very new to our generation."

Did she inhale? "Absolutely, absolutely. I've always been interested in the brain and behaviour and I was a pretty normal girl. It was a time of total liberation. I had a wonderful boyfriend and things were as you would expect…"

As the baby boomers head into late-middle and old age, they are continuing to experiment. Now it's with online dating. Fisher says the fastest growing site in IAC's stable – Our Time – is designed for the over-50s age bracket.

Even if you're in this age group and married, she says, the existence of online dating sites has a positive effect. "When I was living with a man, there were nights that I wasn't that happy and I said to myself, well, there are alternatives! Even if you don't use these sites you know that the option is there, and you can look at what you've got more rationally because you're not so scared."

But can't a multitude of options also be dangerous? "That is the single biggest problem with online dating," Fisher agrees.

"Match.com knows it and everybody else knows it too. It's called cognitive overload. When you get the feeling that there's an endless trail of possibilities, you end up choosing none. I always say to people, after you've met nine people, if there's one of them that could be even a slight possibility, get to know them better. Because once you get into this whirlwind, you're not going to fall for any of them.

"The psychological data shows that the more you get to know someone, the more you like them and the more you think that they are similar to you."

Her second piece of advice applies to all daters – online or not. "Think of reasons to say 'yes'. When you meet someone on that first date you know almost nothing about them and so you [exaggerate] those few things you do know; you think you couldn't go out with someone who dresses the way they do, or they pick up their fork wrong..."

Fisher's New York vowels intensify to Woody Allen levels when she's making a strong point: "If there's any chance at all, get to the second or the third date!"

Incredibly, the ability to focus on your partner's blue eyes and overlook their terrible shoes can actually be detected in brain scans. Fisher says that a study of the brains of people in happy, long-term relationships reveals strong activity in this 'accepting' region of the brain. "Let me give you an example from my own experience," she says.

"This last man that I went out with – an absolutely brilliant man, but slow. He walked, talked and did everything slowly. It would drive me crazy! I was finishing his sentences, walking a couple of steps ahead, getting annoyed in the rain. And then I said to myself, you know what, Helen? He might walk slowly and talk slowly but when we go to the Metropolitan Museum, he can look at a picture for a long time and talk about it, and I see so much more in it because of him. That slowness has given me some of the biggest gifts of my life. So you gotta find out what you like about the person and focus on it."

WHAT'S YOUR TYPE?

Dr Helen Fisher's chemistry.com questionnaire serves to divide people into four personality types: explorers (the fun, adventurous ones), builders (reliable home-makers), directors (the powerful, bossy kind) and negotiators (empathetic communicators). Broadly speaking, explorers seek to partner with fellow explorers; and builders seek fellow builders. However, a director will do best with a negotiator and vice versa.

These four types are an expression of different neurochemistry and the varying role played by dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and oestrogen/oxytocin in our brains. No one conforms to one type – we're all a mix. But as a guide to whittling down prospective dates, it seems to appeal to the masses – more than 13 million people worldwide have taken the questionnaire.

 - Sunday Magazine

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