C'mon, Baby, Light My Brain Cells
Thu Oct 13, 8:16 AM ET
Online dating has been around for about a decade, and it's undeniably
popular: Some 21 million Americans subscribe to online dating services
and 1 in every 100 Internet visitors posts a personal ad.But high use
doesn't necessarily mean high satisfaction levels. Anyone who has ever
tried Internet dating knows the pitfalls -- the difficulty of sifting
through hundreds of often generic-sounding profiles, the misleading or
outright dishonest ads, the failure to find any connection once you
meet the person you've been happily e-mailing for weeks.
Helen E. Fisher thinks she can change all that. Fisher, an
anthropologist and research professor at Rutgers University's Center
for Human Evolutionary Studies, specializes in love, marriage, and
gender differences. She's the author of four books, including her most
recent, titled Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic
Love. She believes that the type of person we are attracted to is
hardwired into our neurons, etched by a combination of hormones, brain
chemicals, and childhood experiences.
"Love Map." As an adviser to new spinoff, Chemistry.com, Fisher is
trying to quantify that certain something we're all looking for in a
mate. She designed a lengthy set of questions that a subscriber fills
out. The answers are then run through a computer, which tries to
decipher the "love map" in the subscriber's brain. It then searches
the site's database for potential matches.
The site launched on Oct. 11. Later that day, BusinessWeek Senior
Writer Catherine Arnst talked to Fisher about her research and its
role in online dating. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
So, how does Chemistry.com come up with matches?
Chemistry.com is quite different than anything else that's out there
(in the online-dating world). I designed a lot of these questions to
determine your brain chemistry. If you have high levels of serotonin,
for example, you are likely to be calm and stable. More of a guardian,
a pillar of society.
There are other personality types as well that are based on chemistry.
There are questions that tell us if you are good at abstract thinking,
or quick to make decisions and act on them.
It's not exactly like I'm going to light a fire between the two of you.
It just raises the chances. Most people fall in love because they have
shared values, but they stay in love because their personalities mesh.
We're trying to increase the changes of finding that spark and joy and
excitement you feel when personalities mesh.
But how can science be used to find something that most people feel is
more akin to magic?
There is still magic to love, of course. Even though we employ science
we recognize that many factors determine who we love. Your childhood
also plays an enormous role in shaping your likes and dislikes.
We ask questions, for example, about the characteristics of your
former best relationship. We are trying to get at who you were really
compatible with, what kinds of characteristics that person had. I want
to know not only what your brain chemistry is, but what was successful
for you in the past.
Why did you decide to get involved with Chemistry.com?
So many scientists have theories and don't really ever learn whether
they work or not. Also, I wouldn't have gotten involved if I didn't
think it had some real value. The typical dating sites match you based
on similarities, but there is more to a good match than similarities.
There are the complementary features as well. We fall in love with
someone who masks those parts of us that we don't like and accentuates
the parts of us we do like. (Chemistry.com) is trying to get at some of
those very subtle ways that people complement each other.
How confident are you that it will work?
I'm certainly confident in the brain chemistry. But can we ever be
totally confident about love? Certainly not. The clients play a big
role in the outcome, after all.
What really astonishes me, though, is that I came up with four basic
personality types in my research, and these same four types have been
described by Plato, Aristotle, Carl Jung, Myers-Briggs. Mankind has
long known that there are personality types. And we can use that
knowledge to up your chances of finding the right person.
One of the questions on Chemistry.com asks how long your index finger is
compared to your ring finger. What's the significance of that?
We are measuring how much testosterone you were exposed to in the womb.
There is new data that shows that the brain is patterned before birth.
The length of the finger can give some clues as to how assertive they
(Studies have found that the length of the index fingers is genetically
linked to the sex hormones. A person with an index finger shorter than
the ring finger will have been exposed to more testosterone while in the
womb, and a person with an index finger longer than the ring finger will
have had more estrogen. In women, the two fingers are usually equal in
length, as measured from the crease nearest the palm to the fingertip.
In men, the ring finger tends to be much longer than the index finger.
You can all run for your rulers now.)
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