Copyright © 2004 Helen E. Fisher

"What Wild Ecstasy":
Being In Love

The world, for me, and all the world can hold
Is circled by your arms; for me there lies,
Within the lights and shadows of your eyes,
The only beauty that is never old.

James Weldon Johnson
"Beauty That Is Never Old"

"Fires run through my body -- the pain of loving you. Pain runs through my body with the fires of my love for you. Sickness wanders my body with my love for you. Pain like a boil about to burst with my love for you. Consumed by fire with my love for you. I remember what you said to me. I am thinking of your love for me. I am torn by your love for me. Pain and more pain. Where are you going with my love? I'm told you will go from here. I am told you will leave me here. My body is numb with grief. Remember what I've said, my love. Goodbye, my love, goodbye." So spoke an anonymous Kwakiutl Indian of southern Alaska in this wrenching poem, transcribed from the native tongue in 1896.

How many men and women have loved each other in all the seasons that preceded you and me? How many of their dreams have been fulfilled; how many of their passions wasted? Often as I walk or sit and contemplate, I wonder at all the heartrending love affairs this planet has absorbed. Fortunately, men and women around the world have left us a great deal of evidence of their romantic lives.

From Uruk, in ancient Sumer, come poems on cuneiform tablets that hail the passion of Inanna, Queen of Sumeria, for Dumuzi, a shepherd boy. "My beloved, the delight of my eyes," Inanna cried to him over four thousand years ago.

Vedic and other Indian texts, the earliest dating between 1000 and 700 B.C., tell of Shiva, the mythic Lord of the Universe, who was infatuated with Sati, a young Indian girl. The god mused that "he saw Sati and himself on a mountain pinnacle / enlaced in love."

For some, happiness would never come. Such was Qays, the son of a tribal chieftain in ancient Arabia. An Arabic legend, dating to the seventh century A.D., has it that Qays was a beautiful, brilliant boy -- until he met Layla, meaning "night" for her jet black hair. So intoxicated was Qays that one day he sprang from his school chair to race through the streets shouting out her name. Henceforth he was known as Majnun, or madman. Soon Majnun began to drift with the desert sand, living in caves with the animals, singing verses to his beloved, while Layla, cloistered in her father's tent, slipped out at night to toss love notes to the wind. Sympathetic passersby would bring these appeals to the wild-haired, almost-naked poet boy. Their mutual passion would eventually lead to war between their tribes -- and death to the lovers. Only this legend remains.

Meilan also lived by dying. In the twelfth century A.D. Chinese fable "The Jade Goddess," Meilan was the pampered fifteen-year-old daughter of a high official in Kaifeng -- until she fell in love with Chang Po, a vivacious lad with long tapered fingers and a gift for carving jade. "Since the heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I was made for you and I will not let you go," Chang Po declared to Meilan one morning in her family's garden. These lovers were of different classes in China's rigid, hierarchical social order, however. Desperate, they eloped -- then were soon discovered. He escaped. She was buried alive in her father's garden. But the tale of Meilan still haunts the souls of many Chinese.

Romeo and Juliet, Paris and Helen, Orpheus and Eurydice, Abelard and Eloise, Troilus and Cressida, Tristan and Iseult: thousands of romantic poems, songs, and stories come across the centuries from ancestral Europe, as well as the Middle East, Japan, China, India, and every other society that has left written records.

Even where people have no written documents, they have left evidence of this passion. In fact, in a survey of 166 varied cultures, anthropologists found evidence of romantic love in 147, almost 90 percent of them. In the remaining 19 societies, scientists had simply failed to examine this aspect of people's lives. But from Siberia to the Australian Outback to the Amazon, people sing love songs, compose love poems, and recount myths and legends of romantic love. Many perform love magic -- carrying amulets and charms or serving condiments or concoctions to stimulate romantic ardor. Many elope. And many suffer deeply from unrequited love. Some kill their lovers. Some kill themselves. Many sink into a sorrow so profound that they can hardly eat or sleep.

From reading the poems, songs, and stories of people around the world, I came to believe that the capacity for romantic love is woven firmly into the fabric of the human brain. Romantic love is a universal human experience.

What is this volatile, often uncontrollable feeling that hijacks the mind, bringing bliss one moment, despair the next?

The Love Survey

"O tell me the truth about love," exclaimed poet W. H. Auden. To understand what this profound human experience actually entails, I canvassed the psychological literature on romantic love, culling those traits, symptoms, or conditions that were mentioned repeatedly. Not surprising, this potent feeling is a complex of many specific traits.

Then, to satisfy myself that these characteristics of romantic passion are universal, I used them as the basis for a questionnaire I designed on romantic love. And with the assistance of Michelle Cristiani, then a graduate student at Rutgers University, as well as Dr. Mariko Hasagawa and Dr. Toshikazu Hasagawa at the University of Tokyo, I distributed this survey among men and women at and around Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Tokyo.

The poll began: "This questionnaire is about 'being in love,' the feelings of being infatuated, being passionate, or being strongly romantically attracted to someone.

"If you are not currently 'in love' with someone, but felt very passionately about someone in the past, please answer the questions with that person in mind." Participants were then asked several demographic questions, covering age, financial background, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and marital status. I also asked questions about their love affairs. Among them: "How long have you been in love?" "About what percent of an average day does this person come into your thoughts?" And "Do you sometimes feel as if your feelings are out of your control?"

Then came the body of the questionnaire (see the Appendix). It contained fifty-four statements, such as: "I have more energy when I am with ____." "My heart races when I hear ____'s voice on the phone." And "When I'm in class/at work my mind wanders to ____." I designed all these questions to reflect the characteristics most commonly associated with romantic love. Subjects were required to indicate to what extent they agreed with each query on a seven-point scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." A total of 437 Americans and 402 Japanese filled out the questionnaire. Then statisticians MacGregor Suzuki and Tony Oliva assembled all these data and did a statistical analysis.

The results were astonishing. Age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ethnic group: none of these human variables made much difference in the responses.

For example, people of different age groups answered with no significant statistical differences on 82 percent of the statements. People over age forty-five reported being just as passionate about their loved one as those under age twenty-five. Heterosexuals and homosexuals gave similar responses on 86 percent of the questions. On 87 percent of the queries, American men and women responded virtually alike: there were few gender differences. American "whites" and "others" responded similarly on 82 percent of the questions: race played almost no role in romantic zeal. Catholics and Protestants showed no significant variance on 89 percent of the statements: church affiliation was not a factor. And where these groups did show "statistically significant" differences in their responses, one group was usually just a little more passionate than the other.

The greatest differences were between the Americans and the Japanese. On most of the forty-three questions where they showed statistically significant variations, one nationality simply expressed somewhat greater romantic passion. And the twelve questions showing dramatic differences all appeared to have rather obvious cultural explanations. For example, only 24 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "When I am talking to ____, I am often afraid that I will say the wrong thing," whereas a whopping 65 percent of Japanese agreed with this declaration. I suspect this particular variation occurred because young Japanese often have fewer and more formal relations with the opposite sex than Americans do. So, all things considered, within these two very different societies, men and women were much alike in their feelings of romantic passion.

*endnotes have been omitted

Copyright © 2004 Helen E. Fisher

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Author's Bio: 

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is one of this country's most prominent anthropologists. Prior to becoming a research professor at Rutgers University, she was a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Dr. Fisher has conducted extensive research on the evolution, expression, and chemistry of love. Her two most recent books, The First Sex and Anatomy of Love, were New York Times Notable Books. She grew up in Connecticut and lives in New York City.