Relationships

How a Love Expert Finally Met Her Match

For over 50 years, Helen Fisher has studied what love does to the brain. Now she’s living it.

Helen Fisher smiling
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christian Frei.

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Helen Fisher has been studying how the heart—and the brain—falls in love for decades. As a biological anthropologist, Helen led a number of studies that investigated what happens to people’s brains in various stages of love. The results were game-changing, and launched Helen into the spotlight as a love expert—but what happens when the love expert doesn’t find love herself? On a recent episode of How To!, Helen opened up about her own heartbreak over the years and how, at 75, she finally found lasting romance. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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David Epstein: Can you tell us how you got into studying the brain in love and your work with MRI machines? 

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Helen Fisher: The “aha moment” came about three o’clock in the afternoon when I was walking in Greenwich Village right near a park. Suddenly I thought, wait a minute, could I put people in brain scanners and see if I can find the brain circuitry of romantic love? People live for love. They kill for love. They die for love. It’s got to be somewhere in the brain. So I ended up doing three major experiments where we put happily in love people in their 20s in the brain-scanning machines. But then I began to think to myself, you know, who gives a damn? The real problems come when people are rejected in love. That’s when they suffer. If I’m going to make any contribution to this planet, it’s going to be understanding rejection and love, not happiness and love. So that’s when I started putting rejected people into the scanner. They were a real mess. There was sobbing. One girl hadn’t left her bed for three days. Other people came in looking very bedraggled. One person even cried so hard in the scanner that we couldn’t use the data.

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“Stop crying. You’re going to break the MRI machine.”

[Laughs.] Well, it certainly ruined the experiment, but I felt so sorry for him. But the bottom line is we did discover that time heals. There’s a brain region where there are a lot of receptors for oxytocin—the basic neurochemical for feelings of attachment. We found that the farther you get away from that original moment of rejection, the less and less activity there was in that brain region.

And so how did you apply that research to heartbreaks in your own life? 

Once there was a guy [I was trying to get over] and I created a one liner: “I love being myself with the perfect man of my own.” When you’re in the shower or driving in your car and you start thinking about a break-up, come up with some sort of aphorism that has nothing to do with them and just start repeating it over and over and over to yourself. I used to do exactly the wrong thing. I would turn up music to kill yourself by and fiercely danced and cried. Now that’s stupid. I knew better than that. I should have gone on a run myself, seen friends—done anything except resurrect the ghost.

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One of the problems with women is that they tend to talk about heartbreak too much to their friends. Each time they talk about it, they’re resurrecting the ghost. For example, I was having a ridiculous love affair. It went on for 18 years and I got some wonderful things out of it. But goodness, it was just heartache the whole time. And I talked about it so much to my friends. They were all very sweet to me and commiserated, but I finally realized that all that commiserating just brought the ghost back again.

Nobody gets out of love alive, David. Nobody gets out of love alive. Now we have a very nice friendship, but we have no chemistry. I’m madly in love with another man, so that’s helped.

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And you just got married this summer, right? To John Tierney, the science writer. 

I did.

I read in your wedding announcement that he broke up with you at Grand Central Terminal. That seems like a terrible symbol—like I’m breaking up with you so you can get on a train and go away. 

Right. He got on the train. I walked home and sobbed. But then I did not contact him for six weeks. That’s really important. And what was really important about it is he knew that I was a woman who wasn’t going to plague him, who wasn’t going to go hammering on his door, who wasn’t going to sob and leave him flowers on his doorstep.

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In those six weeks, did you try and move on?

I did not move on in those six weeks. I could barely breathe. I just sat at the edge of my bed and cried and played Roy Orbison heartbreak music. And then he wrote me a note and said to me: “I made a mistake. You were the best thing that happened to me.”

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For two weeks after that, I didn’t invite him over. And then when I finally invited him over I said, “You know, when you start sleeping with somebody, you can trigger the brain circuitry for romantic love. So are you willing to take that chance?” And he said, “Yes.”

We both like to spend some time by ourselves. I like to go to theaters with my girlfriends, while he’s a big reader and likes his evening at home eating pizza. And I don’t like pizza. It’s nice when you can have a relationship where everybody has some time for themselves. I had always thought that being married was not very different from living with somebody, but I’ve learned it’s richer and deeper.

So you’re still learning about love and romance. 

Yes. Time does heal—that I’ve proven. Time does heal.

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To hear Helen coach a listener who is struggling to get over unrequited love for her best friend, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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