Wide-Angle Thinker: Evolutionary Psychologist Helen Fisher Discusses Film’s Role

Helen Fisher (left) at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

Eric Hynes

In addition to the 181 of films being presented at this year’s Festival, there’s also an ambitious slate of panels, populated by an eclectic mix of artists, film industry professionals and an array of leading edge thinkers, politicians and academics. What they all have in common is a shared interest and investment in how film impacts and intersects with the culture at large.

To that end, we’re conducting a series of conversations with some of the more notable participants whose expertise lies in disciplines, which on the surface might seem to have little to do with the filmmaking process. But after digging a little deeper, and it quickly becomes clear how their work has informed the art and craft of narrative and documentary storytelling and how film continues to inform and shape their research and ideas.

Professor, lecturer, author and sex columnist, Helen Fisher is a 21st century public intellectual. In addition to being a researcher and faculty member of the Center for Human Evolution Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, she serves as Chief Scientific Advisor to dating site Chemistry.com. She’s written for outlets as varied as the New York Review of Books and O, the Oprah Magazine; and her TED talk on human love and cheating has been viewed by 1.5 million people online.

Thanks to her five published books (the most recent of which is Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love from 2010) and extensive research into evolution, the human brain and personality type have helped to define our public discourse on sex, love, marriage, and gender. In anticipation of Dr. Fisher’s participation in “Control Factor,” a panel discussion about incorporating science into narratives, we spoke with Professor Fisher about using film as a messenger and receptor for our notions about love and romance.

It would be interesting to talk about the research you’ve done on romance and human brain in terms of film. What effect do films have on our romantic selves, and on our expectations for sex and romantic connection?

First of all, humans are highly visual animals. The smell centers of the brain are way reduced, and the visual centers and verbal centers are extremely overdeveloped compared to any other animal on this planet. So we can very naturally get into a film because the brain is well built for it. Throughout human evolution, people have been reenacting the hunt, reenacting all kinds of dramas. Drama is very old in the human animal. We can very easily get into the reality of the film—it so easily rings true in the human brain. Once we had the technology to reproduce reality in terms of film, it became instantly popular and will be forever.

Film and film on television is like the global campfire. For millions of years we sat around a campfire and the only people we knew were there, so we gossiped about the people on the other side of the campfire. But now we gossip and talk about films. I don’t know my neighbors, but we both saw the same movie. You and I can’t talk about somebody in my life because you don’t know him, and can’t talk about somebody in your life because I don’t know him, but we can both talk about the film that we saw last week. We sit around this global campfire to form our opinions, to learn how things went bad, how we could do things differently. It’s a great social integrator, and it can set standards very powerfully. It’s a great learning device for showing what not to do in a relationship and what can work in a relationship. And we make all kinds of judgments based on what we’ve seen.

If film appeals to our brain more than other art forms do, it stands to reason that information—and misinformation—about love that we get from film is going to have a real world effect on us.

We’re very susceptible to what we can see and hear. Film has the power to deliver things in an art form that the brain easily sucks up, and we can be less critical of film because it’s so palatable. In some ways I do think film is skewing our understanding of romance. We’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: one is a sex drive, the second is romantic love, and the third brain system is a deep sense of attachment.

The vast majority of films focus on the second of those three brain systems: romantic love. We tend to overdramatize that part of it—though it is very dramatic, of course. We can walk away from the movies with an outsized belief of the importance of romantic love, the transience, power, and despair of romantic love. And not celebrate another brain system which is equally powerful.

A film like On Golden Pond was almost one of a kind in that it was deeply about attachment. It’s a very sophisticated brain system, and films don’t tend to appeal to it as readily. It’s a skewed view of life. We don’t all live for love, we don’t all kill ourselves for love. But I have to say that a lot of people do—they don’t kill themselves as often for attachment or the sex drive.

You don’t hear people saying I was deeply attached for 20 years and I killed myself when she didn’t call me in the morning. But I’ve been impressed by filmmakers being so deeply intuitive about the expression of romantic love. They tend to get it right, what the feeling is like, the craziness and focused attention on another individual. It’s a lot like the poets. They’ve been able to describe romantic love extremely well without knowing modern studies like mine. You don’t have to be a scientist to get this one right.

Of the three brain systems you describe, pornography exists for desire.

Of course. But in a regular, non-pornographic movie theater, if you counted up the number of words expended by actors and actresses on romance, as opposed to those about the sex drive, you’d find many more about romantic love. Unless it’s a porn flick, which is a different kind of thing.

You mean that even the films that are more direct or explicit about sex are setups for discussions of romance, for expectations for romance?

Sex is embedded in the romantic element of the movie, and the central element is romance. Which is more realistic, by the way. The sex drive does trigger feelings of romantic love. Any kind of sexual activity drives up the level of dopamine in the brain, and can push you over the threshold into falling in love. And with orgasm, there’s a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin that are linked to feelings of deep attachment.

These three brain systems often play out in different ways, but the central component seems to be romantic love. We have a very western view of romantic love in all of our movies. People in Asia, particularly the Chinese, have long been terrified of romantic love. They regard it as fickle, that it can topple the entire system of arranged marriages. There are many places in the world that don’t celebrate romantic love, whereas we seem to regard it as the very core of any kind of relationship.

And even though we see the danger in it, it’s almost not explicit. You see people in these movies killing themselves for each other, but somehow you walk away from a movie thinking how blissful this feeling is when you’re in it, rather than how dangerous this thing is when you embark upon it.

Because we can’t help desiring it, we can’t put that part of ourselves away, we want to feel that. With Hollywood being a dream factory, that’s always going to be a part of what we want and get from films.

We also get an unrealistic body image situation. Almost all of the main players are better looking than anyone in the audience. Unrealistically good looking.

Which presents problems in terms of body image and expectations, but there’s also our relationship with actors on screen: we want them to be attractive, and we want to desire them.

When we put people into the brain scanner and had them look at pictures of people they were madly in love with, as well as people who called forth no positive or negative feelings, we found that when people looked at the neutral photographs there was more brain activity in a particular brain region linked with feelings of pleasure when you look at somebody who’s good looking.

Filmmakers know that. So I’m not surprised that we gravitate towards [good-looking people]. We all want to be good looking, and the movies are a dreamland, so why have it call forth our worse fears of being short, fat and ugly? Which is why I like documentaries, because we are short, fat and ugly, and they’re real. I’m not really going for the dream.

I guess I go for both, depending on my mood or desire. There’s still a thrill I can get when that part of my brain is accessed.

I stick to documentaries because I’ve got enough of a dreamland going on in my head. So when I go to the movies I’m not going to be entertained, but to be informed. As an anthropologist, I’m dying to see what real people are doing and how they’re doing it. Going into dreamland actually doesn’t satisfy me. Most people do go for that, though, to get outside of their regular selves.

Walking down a busy street during rush hour, you can instantly pick out a pretty face. And you feel better. You literally feel better. And it’s because you’ve triggered this dopamine system to give you a sense of pleasure. Filmmakers want people to have enough fun to tell their friends, so they’re going to put in pretty faces. They don’t know it [in terms of brain functions], but they know it intuitively.

There’s something more than escape, though. You’re actively looking for and feeling pleasure.

You’re looking for escape into pleasure. Even a very scary movie is going to drive up dopamine in the brain. Excitement drives it up, and you come out feeling stimulated. It not only gives you motivation, stimulation and focus, but energy. People feel well when they’re energetic.

You’ve just given me two great ways to describe why I love movies and why I love living in New York City.

(Laughs) There’s a lot of high dopamine levels in cities. People who like a lot of stimulation go to the big cities. I often think that all I’m really doing in life is confirming what everybody already knows but they don’t know why they know it.

But it’s interesting how often we behave in the opposite, too, denying ourselves. Maybe we’re protecting ourselves from what we need.

Movies are a place where people do let themselves go. They might never let themselves go and buy a Harley Davidson, but they’ll go see a movie about Harleys. They don’t want to live with horrors, but they’ll go to a horror movie. Film is a beautiful place to express all those secret parts of you. When we’re watching these people on screen, they are ourselves. We’re watching ourselves. For those two and half hours, we are Angelina Jolie.

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