Documentary Review by Anne Brodie
Sleepless in New York – Dr. Helen Fisher
Oct 9 limited release
Losing a lover is a common human experience, and how we deal with it is the question on the mi
nd of bestselling author, biological anthropologist and love expert Dr. Helen Fisher. She’s studied the subject for forty years, looking for emotional patterns with state of the art research tools, long-term case studies and interviews. She and her team measures brain wave activity in subjects in various stages of love and loss. Documentarians Christian Frei and Peter Indergand followed Fisher as she studied chemical changes in the brain of the lovesick based on long-term studies, state of the art technical and medical support and Fishers’ accumulated knowledge. The resulting documentary Sleepless in New York looks at love and examines the idea that Nature may have overdone it, the complicated psychological aspects of love lost and the central truth that the desire for love never leaves us. We spoke with Fisher in Toronto.
The films open with a rock solid and ageless testament to love.
Thirteen hundred years ago, a king built a tomb for his dead wife and across from it one for him when he died. It was so carefully made, to capture the sunlight and shadows to link the tombs. So they have stayed connected for all these years. That was a real tribute to his deep attachment and love for her. I can imagine him gathering builders and mathematicians and the workers building this tribute to her so obviously she was very important to him, he couldn’t let go. That is love. It’s so deeply wired in the brain and it’s something we all do. Some of us play piano, some of us dance, but we all love.
Sleepless in New York follow three jilted lovers processing separation. Why is losing love so difficult?
I tried to answer that in my book Why in We Love because it seems Nature really overdid it. Don’t forget when you have someone you love and want to marry and have kids with you’ve won life’s greatest prize because you have a mating partner. When you lose that partner you lose in jeopardize your social connections, friends family, economic support, habits, house and you and your expectations have changed. But you’ve also lost a mating partner and from a Darwinian perspective, you have lost your opportunity to move your DNA on to tomorrow. A lot of people plan not to have children but the brain was built millions of years ago and consciously we don’t want children, but we still feel that loss, the socio-economic, political, personal loss and self-esteem. It goes through two stages, the protest where you just try to win the person back. You’ll try to seduce them or challenge them or make promises, or challenge your rival, or just try to make yourself more important charming interesting good looking and a moment comes and you know you have to give up and then you move into that second stage. That’s resignation.
Is that worse than the initial pain?
It may be more painful, the shock, hope, anger and resignation but then there is growth. That’s the thing. Indifference is what you’re praying for. Love and hate are very connected, when you hate what you want, obsess, crave but when you’re indifferent you’re finally at peace.
Does losing love damage us?
In some respects yes but it can make you a lot stronger. This is when we can learn a great deal about ourselves and our mistakes and then go to make better relationships because of it. When we put people who have been rejected in love into the brain scanner, we found activity in three regions linked with craving and obsession and addiction but you’re also trying to figure out gains and losses, what have I lost, will I lose the house. You’re constantly trying to figure it out, that process can help move towards difference and growth.
There are so many pressures on relationships, in addition to our primal stuff. So many choices and ideas. Will those instincts change?
This kind of instinct, no. The brain circuitry for romantic love lies at the bottom of the brain next to the areas of hunger and thirst. Romantic love is a survival mechanism. And it evolved four million years ago. Focus on one person and if we are around 4 M years from now we still fall in love and suffer. People can take drugs today that ease the physical pain but they don’t counter the memory system or the problems you’re now going to have in your daily habits, or divided property or seeing them with another person. It’s all bad! But I was really surprised about was it’s the dopamine centre that gives the craving and despair, but also the attachment to another and physical pain. Now that really surprised me. The difference between a toothache and romantic love is that if you had a toothache a year ago and you had a root canal, two weeks later you’ve forgotten about it. When you’ve been rejected in love two years later you remember every single poignant moment of it, so the pain continues.
We romanticize romantic love so much. You can’t say Ill avoid all these pitfalls.
In a lot of societies we love romantic love, but a lot of traditions are scared of it. Traditionally the Chinese were really scared of it. Cultures in Africa were scared of it because romantic love is fickle. These people were dependent on arranged marriages so it could unbalance all the systems if you run off with the gardener. Every culture has its Romeo and Juliet story. That’s one of the beauties of this film is that you see them gradually get better.
Brainwaves show deep attachment to a partner, but the farther you get away from that rejection the more you start to heal, time wise, time heals. We proved it, time does heal. You never forget but the pain disappears and you go on.
How long does romantic love last?
We had a lot of people in their 50s and 60s and older and they’d say “I’ve been married for forty or fifty years and I’m still in love with him”. We didn’t believe it. So we put 17 people of that age into the brain scanner. Their brainwaves confirmed what they said, that they felt excitement when they saw their partners and that attachment was there and the craving. They didn’t just love their partner, they were still “in love” with them. We found it, it’s a little factory near the brain that creates the dopamine that gives you focus energy and it becomes activated and also attachment. There was one difference. When you’ve just fallen happily in love there’s a brain region linked with anxiety. You’re thinking “Am I too fat”, “Why hasn’t he called me?” After years of marriage the obsession is gone but somehow the rest of it is present. We didn’t believe it but there it was.
So there is true love?
But you have to find the right person. I’m studying why we are drawn to one person and not another and that’s what’s in my most recent book “Why Him, Why Her?” I am the scientific advisor to Match.com for nine years and I started Chemistry .com which uses my algorithm and created a questionnaire. You just have to pick the right person. You have to do things with them, do novel things because novelty drives up the dopamine system and gives you sustained feelings of romantic love. You have to stay in touch physically with them; it triggers a system that triggers attachment, and having regular sex.
What about people who have sex all the time?
I’m sure it’s complicated for them. Tiring, I think. I talked to a man in Africa who had three wives and I asked him how many he’d like to have and thought he’d say five, ten… and he said “None. It’s too hard, too complicated”. They were always fighting and trying to poison one another’s children and there was no level playing field. That’s why adultery is clandestine, so it doesn’t come to the surface.
What about people who’ve given up on love?
If they come face to face with the right person, who is age appropriate, shares common interests, has a sense of humor and they didn’t have to fit it into their lives those triggers would set off again. There would be no choice, that’s the problem and the joy.