Remember the PSA that aired on TV for years, with the egg and the frying pan: This is your brain, this is drugs, this is your brain on drugs? It seems like love can be a lot like that, too, even when we’re older. Why? For answers, we turn to perhaps the premier expert on the brain and love: Helen Fisher.

Want to hear more? Here’s a link to “Lunch Date: The Older Brain On Love” with Laura Stassi and anthropologist Helen Fisher (


Among Helen Fisher’s books is this national best-seller.



This is Dating While Gray: The Grown-Up’s Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships. Remember that PSA that aired on TV for years with the egg in the frying pan. This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Yeah, I think love is a lot like that. On this episode, “The Older Brain on Love.”

I met a woman. Let’s call her Mia. She was willing to talk about her relationship with a man we’ll call Ben. But not only did Mia not want to use her real name, she didn’t want her voice to be heard. So we’re using a voice actor to help share her story. Mia didn’t want anyone to know who she is because she’s really embarrassed about her behavior. She tells me she’s normally very rational, emotionally strong.


I don’t let my feelings get the best of me.


But when it comes to Ben…


I don’t know. I just lose my mind.


It’s like kryptonite to Superman. Those are Mia’s words, not mine. Mia thought Ben was the one …


…from the very first moment I saw him in college. Nothing happened back then.


But she’d fantasize about him over the years, wonder where he was and what he was doing. And about 30 years later, after they both been married and divorced, she finally found him on social media and reached out.


He remembered me. And then we started seeing each other. But that’s when I found out the real Ben wasn’t anything like the fantasy.


Ben had a hair-trigger temper


He gets so mad so easily. He’d pout or yell when he can’t get his way. And little things to set him off. And sometimes he just behave like a toddler.


He told lies. He’d flirt with younger women right in front of her. He’d talk about moving in together and then getting married but refused to compromise about kids and schedules. When Mia tried to talk to Ben about any of this, he’d break up with her. And then he’d ignore her until he was ready to get back together.


He was in control the entire time.


And when he reached out, Mia would always respond.


I’d tell myself, no, not this time. Don’t answer. But …


She hates that she did this. And she hates that when they were apart. She looked for ways to stay viscerally connected. like she’d scour social media for clues about what he was doing and visit bars and restaurants that he’d been to.


Mia also looked to social media to figure out who Ben was dating. Sometimes she’d think, that one doesn’t look like his type at all.


I’d even contacted one woman and drove more than 100 miles to meet and talk about Ben. And when Ben moved out of state, this other woman and I put our heads together to figure out where he was living. I even made plans to go visit him figuring he reached back out sooner or later or later.


Mia finally found the strength to block bed, phone calls, texts, emails, and social media. She doesn’t want to be tempted to see what he’s doing. And she doesn’t want him to be able to reach out to her. But even though Mia is now in a great relationship, she says she doesn’t think she’ll ever be completely over Ben.

I think a lot of us have behaved in ways that now make us cringe, all in the name of love. And while we might expect this one we’re younger, what about when we’re older? We know how aging affects our bodies. But when it comes to love, does aging affect our brains too? for answers, I’ve turned to Helen Fisher. She’s a biological anthropologist. And she’s considered the premier expert on the biology of love and attraction. She studies the brain on love.


And we’ve done a lot of studies. But the three major ones is we put 17 people who had just fallen happily in love into the brain scanner. And then we put 15 people who have just been rejected in love into the scanner. And then we put 17 men and women who were in their 50s and 60s. And they were all in a long-term happy marriage into the scanner. And in fact, they would come into the lab and say, well, HELEN FISHER, you know, I’m still in love with him, or I’m in love with her just not loving but in love. And Americans don’t think that you can remain in love with somebody long term. But we were able to prove that sure. The basic brain regions that became active among the young who were very happily in love became active in long term happy partnerships.



Okay, how about people who find love at an older age? Would their brains tend to act the same way or is it something these connections are hormones something that we have to generate when we’re younger?


No, this is a brain system like the fear system or the anger system where the surprise system I mean, this is a brain system, the youngest person that I ever met who was madly in love was he actually two and a half are you we’re not studying the SEC system, we’re studying the system for romantic love. And the oldest person that I know today who is madly in love is 87 years old. So it’s a basic brain system that can become active at any time in your life. It’s like a sleeping cat. It can be awakened at any time.


It’s very reassuring what you’re saying. Because, you know, we know that estrogen declines as we age. And testosterone can have peaks and valleys as we age. So I think a lot of people mix those up with the, the, I guess love hormones, is that what you will call them?


they’re actually not hormones. So hormones are estrogen and testosterone, the neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. And what we’ve found in all of the people who were happily in love, people who were in their early 20s, and people who were in their early 60s, they all show the same activity. In the basically same brain region, it’s a tiny little voice, near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, or the VTA, when you look at a photograph of a sweetheart, while you’re lying in the machine, activity begins to happen in that VGA, and it begins to make dopamine, a natural stimulant. That gives you the focus and the motivation and the energy and the optimism, of romantic love.

And what’s so interesting about the VGA, and this dopamine response is that that lies right next to the that orchestrates thirst and hunger, thirst and hunger keep you alive today. romantic love drives you to focus your mating energy on a particular individual and send your DNA into tomorrow. So romantic love is not an emotion. It’s a drive. It’s a basic meeting drive that evolved millions of years ago to start the mating process.


And so even though you’re describing it as a mating process, of course, once we’re over 50, we’re not looking to procreate, but you’re saying it’s a drive to have a partner?


Yeah, you know, that’s a wonderful question. Because, you know, I’ve written a lot of books on this, and one of the books was called why we love and I had to sit at my desk and wonder why is it that this basic brain system doesn’t sort of atrophy after your reproductive years are over? But then I began to think, Well, you know, I mean, I’m an anthropologist, and for millions of years, we lived in these little hunting and gathering societies. And what romantic love does is it drives up the dopamine system, it gives you energy and focus and motivation and positive feelings. And it would be very adaptive a million years ago for a man and woman to fall in love at age 50, or 60, or 70. Because they would be a better group member, I mean, they would have somebody to care for them, somebody that they could care for. When you snuggle with somebody, you’re driving up oxytocin, that’s very healthy. You know, when you laugh with somebody, right? That drives up dopamine and gives you energy boosts the immune system, boost the endorphins for the to reduce pain.

When you play with somebody, it contributes to brain growth. So at any time in life, all of these brain systems become more activated more and energized, if you’re madly in love with somebody. And so, by the way, I read an article only that basically showed that if you’re in a good relationship with somebody, it actually slows the aging process. So romantic love is a basic brain system that obviously had multiple purposes, when you’re young to find a partner to reproduce and send your DNA on to tomorrow. And when you’re older, to find a partner, for your health, and for the health of your community.


That’s such a hopeful thought.


I think it’s accurate as well as hopeful, frankly.


Yeah. And does the male brain act the same as the female brain?


Yes, we’ve we put just as many men into our brain scanner as women. And we found exactly the same activity in the male brain. Bottom line is men fall in love faster than women. They fall in love more often than women. They, when they meet a woman that they like a man want to introduce the woman to friends and family sooner. Men want to move in sooner. Men have more intimate conversations with their partner than women do with their partner because women have their intimate conversations with their girlfriends. Both sexes are romantic, but men are a little bit more fragile. I’ve been trying to tell that to the women’s magazines for 40 years, they dedicated to thinking that women are romantic, more romantic, they’re both romantic, but it happens to men sooner.


I have heard and again, I don’t know if this is just if this is based in fact, but that men tend to be very visual. And so you know, they need to feel a visual connection, or, you know, physical interest before they can fall in love. Whereas women, physically, it might not be their ideal, but they can learn basically to fall in love. Is there any scientific evidence to support that?


Well, men are more visual, there’s no question about that. And it comes from millions of years of having to hit their buffalo in the head with a rock, you really had to, to be visual. And by the way, that visual sense of men plays a very important role in reproduction. There’s something called the hip to waist ratio. In other words, women of a certain size and shape, get preyed on much more easily carry the baby more easily, have parturition more easily and have fewer diseases like diabetes or certain cancers, that would make them less likely to be a good reproductive partner. And so it’s adaptive for men to be able to take a look at woman because he’s not thinking of it. When he says, Oh, she’s cute, or Oh, she’s not or whatever. But from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective, it was adaptive for men to look for signals of health and fertility in women, because it’s the women who are going to send their seed into tomorrow. So the bottom line is, it’s adaptive for, for men to be quite visual. And to have a very visual response to women. This is one of the reasons they fall in love faster, because they are also visual is also very adaptive for women to want to know whether the man has got any money, and he’s got a good job, because she’s going to bear that baby. But he has to help her raise it.


Is physical attraction, being physically attracted to someone is the same brain function in play as falling in love with someone?


Yeah, wonderful question. No, we’ve evolved and I write a lot about this, we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems from mating and reproduction, what is the sex drive, that is really orchestrated largely by the testosterone system in both men and women. The second is a feeling of intense romantic love, orchestrated largely by the dopamine system in both men and women. And the third is feelings of deep attachment. That sense of calm and security you can feel with a long-term partner, orchestrated right by different neuro chemicals, oxytocin, and vasopressin. So I think the sex drive evolved to get you out there looking for a whole range of partners, you know, you can have sex with somebody you’re not in love with.

Romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one person at a time. And feelings of deep attachment evolved to enable you to stick with this person, at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy so that different brain systems, and they evolve for different reasons. What’s interesting is the press always seems to get this wrong, they assume Oh, well, yeah, we start with sex. That goes to romantic love. And then it goes to deep attachment. It’s not true. These aren’t phases. They’re brain systems. So you can have a long, particularly among older people. You can have a long attachment to somebody at work or in your social circle or your exercise, circle, whatever. And then times change. People break up, spouses die, and boom, you suddenly fall madly in love. It was a deep attachment that turned into intense, intense and I repeat that intense, romantic love. Or you can even when you’re older, format in love with somebody and then have sex with them and then feel sick, you know, feelings of attachment. So they’re different brain systems, sex drive, romantic love, and feelings of attachment and they can come and go in Our whole, you know, in any way, I mean, what we all really want is to have all three.


For the same person? We want somebody we’re in love with, or we want somebody we’re sexually attracted to.


Both. Absolutely both.


Yes. So, um, you know, it’s funny because I have talked to people who, who gets together, and it’s like, oh, he’s acting like a 14-year-old boy, you know, and I hear this throughout the stories about people being surprised at how they’re feeling like they’re in love for the first time or that they’re in love the way they were intensely when they were teenagers. And so I’m wondering what explains that from a science point of view,


it’s very easy. This is a brain system, like the anger system, or the fear system, you can be scared when you’re two and a half, you can be scared when you’re 22, you can be scared when you’re 92. You can be in love When you’re two and have you be in love When you’re 22. And you can be in love When you’re 90 do it’s a basic brain system. You know, we come from a farming background for the last 10,000 years. And on the farm, one of women’s most important roles was to have a lot of babies to help pick the vegetables, etc, etc. So it became this belief system that after the age of menopause, women were sort of over the hill, right? But we’re not. And when you study hunter gatherer, when you study the brain as I do, it’s very clear that you can fall madly in love, at any age.


We’ll hear a love story from a listener named LINDA…


and we pine for love. We live for love, we kill for love, and we die for love …


And more from Helen Fisher, after a quick break.



Hi, Laura. I’m Linda. About a year and a half ago, I was using the dating app. So using eHarmony and match. And then one time out of the blue. I got a note from someone about 400 miles away from me. So he said, Hello, Linda. My name is Richard and I read your profile. And it seems very appealing. And I’m reaching out to you. And I know I’m far away. But I was just hoping to get to know you a little bit better. We started chatting and I was impressed by his professional background. He was a medical doctor. And I liked that someone has a nice profession. And I enjoyed that.

And he was also a musician like I was. And so we had these things in common. We were musicians, we were professionals. We were parents. And then he asked me, Do you want to meet up and I’m like, how are we going to do that? We’re 400 miles away from each other. He said, let’s just do this. Let’s find a halfway point. I’ll find a bed and breakfast and it will be no strings attached. I’ll get two rooms and we’ll meet this weekend. And I said oh what the heck. Let’s go for it baby.

You know, I found him fascinating, but I wasn’t that physically attracted to him. I was taller than he was. He was nice. I just looked at him a little bit nerdier. And I consider myself kind of nerdy, and I’m not that tall. After a while, I really felt myself getting sucked in, in a way, but I think he was really into me too. And we talked every night, texted several times a day, he would send me these kind of nice gifts, and then we would arrange to see each other. And a few times, he came up to Arlington where I live, and I would get rid of my sons, send them over to their dads and clean the house. And I would spend days cleaning the house, but I really wanted to impress him. So it was almost like I was living this little magical dream. And I will say I was I was still very impressed by his profession.

And by his wealth, I’ll be honest about that. But I’m trying to tell myself, you know, we’re just, you know, we’re soulmates. Yeah, I mean, I think it was good sexually. It was, and I started to feel like I could be myself, you know, I came from a long, lonely marriage, and I hadn’t dated much at all. And so he was so into me. And he kept talking about us moving in together, and he would maybe we would have a house in Arlington and a house in North Carolina. And we would find a way to accommodate I have a son with special needs, and all of that, and I was getting so sucked into it.

And he talked about, oh, maybe we could go like to Paris for a weekend or maybe, you know, like all kinds of stuff. He said to me, at one point, he said, You know, he had been married before it, but he did tell me that I was the only person he ever wanted to marry. And I just, I just felt so special. We loved each other. And he said to me, at one point, he said, we’re not having sex, LINDA, we’re making love because we love each other. Oh, my God, I’m like, you’re right. And of course, lovemaking. I was 5657. And he’s three years older than I, you know, it’s a little clunky, right? It’s a little clunky. It needs a little pill. I but I didn’t care. I just thought that I was. I was in heaven.


And I woke up the next morning, and I looked outside, and his whole house was trashed. And his car was keyed. There were eggs all over the house. Someone had destroyed the backyard furniture plants, there was probably a few $1,000 worth of damage outside of the house. I said, What is this? And he said, Oh, it’s my former girlfriend, and she knows you’re here. And then she had actually keyed my car to. He was supposed to come up to DC to visit with me. And of course, I’d spent like the last four days cleaning the house, getting rid of my son’s getting my hair done all that stuff, because that’s how I rolled within I really wanted to be the best girlfriend, the most patient the most understanding. And he called me up the night before he was to come visit me. And he said, LINDA, I must end our relationship right now. I don’t love you, and I don’t want to marry you. And we’ll never see you again. And it’s the end. Don’t contact me anymore.

I was like, I felt like I was in junior high again, getting rejected, but the boy had a crush on. It felt the same way. And here I was 57 years old and shattered. I was stunned and so hurt and humiliated. I begged him to explain why, like maybe we could get into therapy. Maybe there’s Did I do anything wrong? I’m really sorry. Was I too eager? Like I was, you know, course blaming myself and trying to figure it out? I said, No, I’m just, I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t do it. I’ll never know why. So, so I’m thinking back like maybe this was his pattern. Maybe he did this with the other girlfriend. And maybe her response is nothing like I would have been, but maybe it triggered something in her to, you know, she was getting some issues with him for three years.

So I’m sure that she got herself involved with him too. So I can’t blame her completely. It could be that this is what he does when he gets overwhelmed with the prospect of having a committed relationship. I don’t know. I think sometimes we react in ways that are so irrational. And it’s just so human, but I couldn’t believe how hard I took it. And it just took me a long time to feel less sad and less rejected, and not dream about it. And I just knew that I needed to heal And it took me longer than I thought it would. I mean, I think that’s you, you cannot be hurting people’s homes or threatening them or stocking them. But maybe this was her raw reaction to her perceived rejection. Because I certainly now, you know, I’ve been through a lot in my life, but I know I had an intense reaction too…


it’s amazing what people will do when they’re in love. I mean, it’s, you know, I mean, it’s one of the most powerful brain system the human animal has ever evolved. I mean, we pined for love, we live for love, we kill for love, and we die for love.


So I’ve also talked with people who have done things that they’re really embarrassed about when love ends, or when they feel burned, I guess, what’s going on in the brain when things like that happen.


Bottom line is what we found in the brain, same activity in the GTA sociated, with a pumping out of the dopamine and real feelings of intense romantic love, activity in a brain region linked with attachment. activity in a brain region link with physical pain, not just psychological pain, but physical pain, and three brain regions, linked with craving and addiction. And in fact, the basic brain region that is associated with all of the addictions became active. It’s called the nucleus accumbens is always active with substance abuse, addiction, anything from heroin, cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. And all the behavioral addictions like gambling, or sex, addiction, etc. So when you’re dumped, the most powerful brain regions associated with addiction become activated. And you can really do some stupid things.

Oh, and in fact, you know, it’s very difficult to control. Don’t forget that this is a drive, like hunger and thirst, it’s very hard to control hunger and thirst. And it’s very hard to control feelings of intense romantic love. So nobody gets out of level live. We all look back and say, What did I do that for? How could I possibly Why did what was I thinking. And in fact, when you’re madly in love certain brain regions in the frontal behind your forehead, prefrontal cortex, brain regions linked with decision making, begin to reduce activity, okay, so you’re focused on somebody, they’ve got this intense energy, you’re absolutely craving them. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep. If you’re a woman, you can’t stop talking about it. If you’re a man, you might hold up and watch TV and drink too much or drive too fast.


Let’s say we go through a terrible breakup. And we don’t want to repeat the same behaviors that we did before. Is there a way to retrain the brain so that we act more logically the next time around?


Well, acting is different from feeling. And I do think that next time around, you may feel exactly the same pain, and passion, and craving, etc. But maybe you’ve learned that this time, you’re not going to fly from New York to Sydney, Australia to get down on your knees at lunchtime and then fly back, you know, so, you know, I mean, behavior can change. I mean, you know, it’s just like hunger or thirst. I mean, can you train yourself to not be thirsty? Probably not. But you can certainly train yourself to not go racing after, you know, booze and drink water instead. Something like that. So it’s like the fear system now. I mean, it’s a really good question. I really haven’t thought of it quite this way. Sure. Let’s say you’re terrified of spiders. Can you get yourself used to spiders and not be scared of them? Probably you can. Sure.

The, the brain is flexible is plastic, as they say. It’s flexible. But romantic love is very powerful. Now I remember one time with me. There was a man who every time he was in, he was an editor. And there were no way I was gonna put the make on an editor of one of my you know, but every single time I saw this man, I felt intense romantic love from I never told him. I never put the slightest move on him ever would never have dreamt of it.

And I would come home and I’d lie down. I say all right, Helen, just enjoy the feeling and it will pass. And indeed, after two or three days, it, it would pass. So I do think that you can train yourself to not do stupid things. But I think it’s very difficult to stop the brain from feeling things.

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