by Helen E. Fisher
Owl Books, 2004
Review by Kevin Purday on Oct 10th 2006
This book is an
ambitious attempt to map the physiological basis of what we call love. The
author is an anthropologist but in this work she cooperates with specialists in
several fields, most notably specialists in brain scanning, to try to gain a
genuinely comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of love. She is
currently a research professor at Rutgers University and is already well known
for her books The First Sex, and Anatomy of Love.
The book is a
melange of anthropology -- stories of falling in love from cultures all over
the world, history -- numerous historical accounts of love, literature -- many
quotations about love from poetry and novels, animal biology -- analogies between
human love and 'love' in many different species of animal, and human
biology/psychology -- in-depth accounts of the physiology and psychology of
love. It is a heady mixture.
will find different parts of the book intriguing. The comparisons with various
animal species are quite moving at times and raise serious issues about our
treatment of animals. For this reviewer the most interesting part was the use
of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to ascertain the extent to which
falling in love, being in love, or being rejected by one's lover are reflected
in physical brain processes. This section is not done in a dry-as-dust way --
it is presented to us more like a first-rate piece of medical journalism. An
example would be Bjorn who is described as a very reserved young man and one
not prone to excitedly talk about his beloved. He did not seem to the author to
be an ideal candidate since he was so reticent and the depth of his love for
her was difficult to assess. However, he underwent fMRI and "when this
reserved young man looked at the picture of his sweetheart, his brain 'lit up'
like a fireworks display." (Page 65)
analysis is very enlightening with detailed discussion of the brain's caudate
nucleus and the ventral tegmental area in relation to falling in love while
there is also some discussion of the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular
cortex in relation to long-term love. The conclusion the author comes to as a
result of all her analyses is that to say that love is an emotion is merely to
utter a truism. Love is a drive which we humans share with the all the higher
and many of the not so high animals. She delves deeply into the reasons why
this drive is so powerful and in the process elucidates many of the customs and
patterns in human relationships.
The book is
extraordinarily readable and very enjoyable. However, editors and, to a lesser
extent, proof readers do need to be alert when preparing a book like this for
publication. Because the author is covering such an enormous field as the
history of love, it is easy for mistakes to slip in when dealing with
unfamiliar material. For example, Osiris the Egyptian god can hardly be said to
have "written" anything (page 109); Heraclitus was a Greek not a Roman
philosopher (page 191) and predated what we would recognize as the Roman period
by several centuries. Despite these minor quibbles, this is an excellent book
and richly rewarding. This is as true for the general reader as for the
specialist -- there are excellent end-notes and a superb bibliography.
All-in-all this is a highly recommended book.
Kevin M. Purday
Purday is a consultant in international education working mainly in Europe,
Africa and the Middle East. His main focus is on helping schools to set up the
International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma Programs. He has taught
both philosophy and psychology in the I.B. diploma program.