Is There Science to “Love at First Sight”?

I always balked at the concept of “love at first sight” when it was nauseatingly perpetuated in the songs and movies I enjoyed growing up. I was much too rational to believe in such mystical forces. Love always felt so much weightier than something one could experience at a glance; it was connection, emotion, understanding, patience. It should never be tossed out haphazardly, without adequate forethought and some semblance of sureness. All of that still feels true.

Theoretically, then, I should not believe in love at first sight. In recent years, however, something has started to bug me.

Whenever I analyze the process by which I’ve come to experience strong feelings for someone — feelings that have or could have resulted in romantic love — I’ve noticed the sequence always starts with a distinct flurry of inexplicable chemistry. My memory has captured these something moments like snapshots: At 16, with my first crush, sharing witty banter at our desks, getting lost in his gray-blue eyes. At 21, with my first adult relationship, locking gazes across that crowded bar, slowly trading glances and sips of our drinks until he finally walked over to me. At 24, with my current guy, a flutter of anger snapping to the surface at a difference of opinion, in such a heat wave of irrational attraction I couldn’t stop recalling it for months.

These notable moments have forced me to acknowledge that those early, irrational, impulsive somethings might be the canaries in the coal mine of a complicated phenomenon. They prompt a rush of why-am-I-acting-this-way, WTF-am-I-feeling processes that evade total comprehension by my brain’s left hemisphere. If not “love at first sight” (or “love within early days”), then I’ve still felt something right away. Like a shot of tequila mixed with an internal car crash, strong, familiar emotions, long dormant in my chest, will leap, whirr, pulse or snake their way to the surface and…boom.

What is that? That something?! Infatuation? Obsession? Or shades of love itself? From what I’ve determined, love is not just patient and kind, soft and slow-moving. Scientifically speaking, romantic love is also a passionate, deep, complex chemistry, and it continually evolves from a relationship’s early days to its final bow.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., calls romantic love “an addiction” and “a craving.” After scanning many love-stricken brains, Fisher’s fMRI studies show people in love “exhibit activity in the same brain regions that become active when one is addicted to cocaine and other drugs,” she explains in Elsevier. These lovers show activity in parts of the brain attempting to integrate both thought and feeling. Add in their whirling hormones and you’ve got a cocktail of happy, heated confusion. “Dopamine is key,” she says. “This neurotransmitter is the central component of the brain’s reward system — the brain system that gives the lover focus, energy, motivation, and craving for the beloved.”

This is why when you’re starting to fall in love with someone, you seemingly can’t get enough of them. “I can’t think of any bigger reward than falling in love,” Fisher says. Physiologically speaking, it’s certainly up there.

But is this specific something “love”? In differentiating between love and infatuation, or equating one with the other, it gets tricky. Is it possible, perhaps, that love is many things at once, taking on different shapes and intensities?

Love occurs in phases, along a spectrum of growing depth and meaning. As Fisher says, this strong drive “affects us on a more personal level” than the mere whims of attraction. One of the major brain regions involved in propelling our romantic attachments lies right next to the regions driving deeply ingrained needs like thirst and hunger. Therefore, she says, the motivating biology to create and sustain romantic love is more potent than our more “primitive” sex drives.

In other words, the original seeds of love might be intense, rolled in infatuation and physical attraction, but those things are only a slice of the whole pie.

Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College in New York, thinks it’s important to think first about what you consider to be love. In her view, “love is a drive — a drive to form a bond,” motivating people to get closer and fulfill needs together. “There are different components of love, too, and we experience love in different ways with different people and experiences. I love my job. I love pizza. I love my husband.”

That means the possibility of “love at first sight” will depend on a person’s experience of love. “If you think love involves a deep connection, that can’t be made in an instant,” Cohen explains. “But it is possible to become infatuated with or enamored with a person at first glance.” And if you think of those initial sparks as part of love, she says, then “it’s not just a phenomenon that we hear about in movies and songs.” Instead, love at first sight is, in a way, possible.

Without even thinking about it, our brains form first impressions really quickly, and that can result in one of love’s early punches: infatuation. “We gauge how we feel about another person in a matter of milliseconds,” Cohen says. “Essentially, ‘love at first sight’ is passionate love, or total absorption in another person.” Of course: “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lead to a long-lasting and loving relationship.”

But even if it didn’t turn into a strong relationship, it’s not that that something was not love. It just wasn’t necessarily capital-L, long-term Love. “While ‘love at first sight’ may feel wonderful, if you aren’t building a strong base of compassionate love beneath that, when the passion dies down, the relationship is over,” Cohen says. This is where love gets bigger and the definition expands beyond obsessive absorption.

Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg outlined something called “the triangular theory of love,” which I’ve found myself gravitating back to each time I start to wonder what on earth I’m experiencing. He identifies three unique components of full-fledged romantic love, all of which interact to build something great and complex. “Passion” is that initial something, comprising the “romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation” that we experience when we first begin to fall. But additional layers add to love’s depth. “Intimacy” refers to the “feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships.” Finally, “decision” or “commitment” encompasses the solidifying between the two; in the short-term, it’s “the decision that one loves a certain other,” and in the long-term, it’s your “commitment to maintain that love.”

Before I even had words to describe what I was looking for, I think I’ve always wanted that full-fledged, three-prong, Sternberg-esque version of love — so much so that I’m hesitant to apply the word to anything less. I want the passion. The intimacy. The cocktail of emotional connection and chemistry, of friendship and committing to one person above all. I want to lose myself to the rush of addiction, as described by Fisher, but have a stable foundation of “trust, commitment and intimacy” to cushion the chaos, as Cohen explains of love’s more compassionate side, solidified with choice.

But I’ve also come to appreciate that each facet of love, capital L or not, is unique and beautiful — even its earliest incarnation, infatuation, that first something you may experience with a budding crush. Though it’s ruled more by the fate of attraction than by the choice to stick with someone through those less-thrilling parts of commitment, that initial excitement can spur both lengthy romantic sagas and some of the best short stories (or nights) of our lives. And you can, in the name of science, call it “love” if you want.

Perhaps that’s my very favorite thing about love: Only you decide exactly what it is, when to speak it and with whom to deepen that initial obsessive force.

Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 

Jenna Birch

Journalist, dating coach and author of The Love Gap.

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