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Review of "Why We Love"

By Helen E. Fisher
Owl Books, 2004
Review by Kevin Purday on Oct 10th 2006
Why We Love

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.

Different readers 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)

The physiological 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.


2006 Kevin M. Purday


Kevin 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.

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