By Helen Fisher, Ph.D.
Kicking leaves, carving pumpkins, pencils, books and work: We're back in the fall routine. And as we resume our autumn rituals, most of us take stock. Perhaps there's nothing we ponder more thoroughly than our bedroom habitat. Is someone there? If not, why not? If so, is this The One? Or should someone else reside in this inner sanctum?
We tend to think that spring and summer are the mating seasons—the key times that we engage in the pursuit of happiness. But as autumn gets under way, professionals, entrepreneurs, students, retirees, almost everyone returns to “the hood,” or to clubs, restaurants, gyms, sports and cultural events, and parties--rekindling and expanding their social webs.
"Cats seem to go on the principle that it never does any harm to ask for what you want," wrote critic Joseph Wood Krutch. Like cats, in the autumn, even the meek become emboldened to ask what they want: romance. Some will join Chemistry.com, the Internet dating site I helped design for those looking for a serious relationship. Others will seek a mate at other Internet dating sites, or buy newspapers and magazines to peruse the personals. And as they gather, they will hope for love.
How autumn works its charm
What makes fall such a dynamic mating season? First, it’s important to acknowledge that anytime is a good time for love and sex. Deer court in the fall; female dogs court when they are "in heat;" most female monkeys have a sexual peak in the middle of their monthly menstrual cycle when they ovulate. Humans have no courting or birthing season.
Certainly, summer (the “hot” season) has its thrills. The fireflies and crickets, the pungent smells of roses, barbeque and salty air, the sunning bodies on the beach or grass, the fresh peaches: summer magic invigorates our senses. But as poet John Keats wrote of autumn, "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...thou hast thy music too." Keats had it right. As we hurtle toward crisp days and nights, new events-and new floods of chemicals-will propel us toward love.
The chemistry connection
Foremost, in autumn anticipation can run high. And novelty, unpredictability and anticipation can juice the dopamine circuits in the brain, making you feel good – very good. Dopamine is the chemical that courses through the mind when a person foresees winning money, reaches for chocolate or even takes cocaine. And the novelty of autumn can trigger this dopamine response, giving you energy, optimism, focus and motivation, as well as increasing your sex drive.
Autumn days, however, primarily jumpstart the production of testosterone – the premier hormone of lust. Men and women inherit their baseline levels of this potent cocktail. But this hormone also fluctuates according to daily, monthly and annual rhythms. Testosterone is highest in men in the early morning, for example, as well as higher in women just before mid-month ovulation, when they are most likely to initiate sex. But beyond these shifts, in autumn, this sap rises – giving men extra strength, energy, concentration and confidence. Moreover, as testosterone initiates sexual desire, ensuing sexual activity triggers more testosterone. Thus the cycle spins.
Remarkably, even anticipating sex increases testosterone in men. Known as the "lighthouse effect," this relationship was first discovered when scientists measured the beard trimmings of a lighthouse attendant. He lived alone on an island during the week. But every Friday he sped to the mainland to enjoy the weekend with his girlfriend. On Fridays his beard grew more than usual – the effect of testosterone, triggered by sexual desire.
"In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. But in late spring and early summer, levels of testosterone are at their lowest. They peak instead in November and early December, when sperm counts are also higher. And this potion works. In the Northern Hemisphere, women give birth more frequently in August and September, nine months after the flood of testosterone in late autumn. This testosterone surge may be part of nature's plan to turn our thoughts to love in the waning days of autumn and reap love’s rewards during the bounty of late summer. A vestige of the rutting season of many other creatures, autumn may be our primary time to love. This fall, may it be yours.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is research professor, department of anthropology; author of Why We Love; and is chief scientific advisor to www.chemistry.com.