Three researchers discuss what's hot in love studies

What’s the difference between lust, love, and longtime commitment? Do men and women view love and sexuality differently?  And why oh why does a brain in love look like a brain on drugs? With Valentine’s Day fast approaching we thought it would be a good time to ask three Rutgers University researchers who study such questions what’s new and hot in their fields.

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The three –  Helen Fisher, a research professor and member of Human Evolution Studies in the Department of Anthropology  in  New Brunswick; Barry Komisaruk, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor in Newark; and Luis Garcia, professor of  psychology and associate dean of the Graduate School in Camden – have been studying love and human sexuality, collectively, for more than 75 years.

They agree that understanding romance and attraction isn't easy. When love is good, it's like taking a thrilling jaunt on a roller coaster. But when love hurts, it can feel like a dangerous ride in an uncontrollable car veering toward a brick wall. Still, that “take your breath away” feeling you get when you are in love makes even the prospect of a broken heart worth the unpredictable adventure.  So, with that in mind, our experts say their continuing research into how love and sexuality are hardwired into our brains indicates that it’s important to know yourself, try to understand your partner, and realize that love, though messy and complicated at times, can also be one of the most satisfying human emotions that exist. 

Helen Fisher: New singles survey shatter myths

Helen Fisher
Helen Fisher’s new, national survey of singles contains some provocative findings: unmarried men and women (women especially) are not desperate to marry and have children, men are quicker to fall in love, hooking up and one-night stands aren’t necessarily meaningless sexual encounters; and singles in their early 20s and over 65 report the greatest level of happiness.

 Fisher’s research, conducted in conjunction with and others, examined the attitudes and behaviors of 5,200 singles between ages 21 to 65.

 “This survey busts some entrenched myths about women, men, sex, and love,” says Fisher, who has done extensive research on brain chemistry and romantic love. “I am fascinated to learn that men are just as eager to marry and have children and more eager to compromise in a relationship.”

Of those surveyed, 72 percent said they would live with someone without marrying even though 62 percent of those between ages 21-34 want to marry; 49 percent of women disagree that they should be the primary caregivers compared to 38 percent of men.

The study also found that women want more nights out with female friends, their own bank accounts, and the opportunity to take vacations without male companions.

It also found that even though men and women have more progressive attitudes toward gender roles, 89 percent of the women surveyed said that they had not asked anyone out in the past year and 49 percent said they waited for the man to reach out after a date.

Only 20 percent of men and 29 percent of women said it was very important to find someone of the same ethnic background, while even fewer, 17 percent of men and 28 percent women, categorized religion as very important.

Still, singles remain romantics with 41 percent believing in love at first sight and 76 percent believing they can stay married forever. Until they find their soul mate they believe hook-ups and one-night stands can lead to long-term relationships. Of those surveyed 36 percent were open to a hook-up,  54 percent had a one-night stand, and 35 percent had an encounter that turned into a long-term partnership.

Barry Komisaruk: Touch-free orgasms?

In what has been dubbed Barry Komisaruk’s “orgasm lab” scientists are discovering that female sexual

pleasure can be attained not only by touch but also by simply imagining the sexual stimulation of erogenous body parts. Komisaurk has been studying female orgasms for more than 20 years and uses high-tech brain scanning imaging technology known as functional MRI to peer deep into the brains of his female volunteers to find out how and why pleasure centers in the brain are activated.

What he has discovered after scanning the brains of more than a dozen women is that the same region of the brain that is activated by recreational drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and sexual pleasure can also be used as a tool to achieve orgasm by nothing more than unadulterated thoughts of sexual contact.

"We see the brain light up in the same manner in these women whether they are touching themselves or simply thinking about it," says Komisaruk "The brain is not registering it any differently."  

So does that mean an end to love, marriage, or the occasional hook-up? Not according to Komisaruk who believes that reality is better than thinking about it and insists that physical contact and emotional connection are still important to women and men alike. "It's why we don't develop a filet mignon pill," says Komisaruk. "We like sitting down and enjoying the whole dining experience."

What he is hoping is that further research will enable women with neurological and other physical or emotional problems to learn how to use their brains to bypass whatever is preventing them from having an orgasm. Komisaruk believes that when researching female sexuality, it is crucial to concentrate on the activity taking place in the brain. This research, he says, is helping to prove that the mind, particularly when it comes to women, is more powerful than ever imagined.

Luis Garcia: Opposites Don’t Attract

Luis Garcia, who has studied human sexuality and gender differences for more than 20 years, says the old adage that opposites attract could not be further from the truth. Instead, he says, those who have a greater chance of staying together are more apt to share the same religious beliefs, political preferences, and sexual experiences. 

Luis Garcia 125.jpg
“People who have similar backgrounds, shared experiences and beliefs tend to be happier and stay together,” says Garcia.

Research indicates that men and women tend to gravitate toward those who have similar sexual as well as social backgrounds, Garcia says. This means that those who are more sexually experienced tend to stick together while those who are considered to be more sexual novices look for similar type companions.

“Highly sexually experienced men tend to date and marry women who are also highly sexually experienced," he says. The belief that opposites attract is simply not the case.”

Garcia has done research on how men and women view sex in an attempt to determine whether couples who are the most accurate in predicting the sexual likes and dislikes of their partners tend to be happier.

“In general you find that men and women are pretty good at knowing in general what the other likes sexually,” says Garcia. “But what we also find is that women tend to overestimate the arousal level of men when it comes to certain sexual activities.”

While men more often than women are initially attracted as a result of a female’s physical attractiveness, women, when compared to men, tend to be guided more by a man’s intelligence, personality, and level of ambition. 

Garcia's current research (with associate psychology professor Charlotte Markey): whether lesbian couples who communicate their sexual desires are happier in their relationships than those who don’t discuss sex.