“This is going to sound crazy, but… from the moment I first set eyes on you I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.” Leigh Fallon, Carrier of the Mark
Anyone who has ever read a Nicholas Sparks novel or a Shakespeare play, or sat through a Disney classic or Hollywood rom-com, will be familiar with the concept of love at first sight.Your eyes lock for that one moment, whilst the stars align and fireworks explode in the background to the sounds of a heavenly choir.
Indeed, there are countless reports of love at first sight throughout history. From Romeo’s passionate monologues about his sudden passion for Juliet, to the more recent reports from high profile couples such as Carla Bruni and her husband, the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bruni described her instant connection to her husband: “between Nicolas and me was not quick, it was instant. So for us, [the wedding] was actually very slow.” We often hear couples talk about that initial spark or ‘just knowing’ that they would end up with their partner the first time they met.
But can it really happen? Can we really know we want to spend the rest of our lives with someone after a single glance? Or is it simply sexual attraction?
“Whoever loves, loves at first sight.” William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Dr Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University tells us that feelings of love can occur just 0.2 seconds after first laying eyes on someone. This feeling is apparently created by 12 areas of your brain working in tandem to release chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressine that give a euphoric feeling that happens so quickly it could be described as ‘love at first sight’.
Why would this quick ‘love’ response be beneficial? Well other anthropological studies have considered that love at first sight could be a mating shortcut hardwired into our physiology, to help make important mating decisions.
As Dr Helen E. Fisher states:
But can these intense and instant feelings of ‘love’ be considered the real deal? Surely real love takes longer to develop? It all depends on your definition of love. Many would argue that it is impossible to be in love with someone without sufficient knowledge about the person’s characteristics or values (humour, kindness, loyalty, life goals – these are a big part of deciding who you want to settle down with). If love an active process that involved an accumulation of shared experience, then how can you fall in love without experiencing the usual activities typical of a deep romantic love? Undoubedtly the ‘lovers’ are making a number of assumptions about the quality of someones character based on their appearance, and we know good looks don’t always equate to a good personality.
Indeed, some may feel more comfortable with theories of accerlated intimacy, based on the work of psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron who outlined a series of 36 questions that create closeness in a lab setting. The result is not unlike the accelerated intimacy that can happen between strangers on an airplane or other close quarters – with the content of early discussions forming the basis of future relations. Whether this sense of intimacy can last in a real-world setting is not guaranteed (as Sheldon and Penny demonstrate in ‘Intimacy Acceleration’ episode of the Big Bang Theory). Unsurprisingly, some connections that start in a manufactured environment may endure, whilst others may run their course.
So is love at first sight merely imaginary wishful thinking? Or more importantly, are we confusing lust with love?
Well a deeper look at the study by Dr Ortigue, shows that whilst visual cues can activate the neurotransmitters associated with emotional love pathways is a very swift way, the higher-order cognition pathways that send information back the emotional areas of the brain kick in later. In other words, although studies suggest that the love response can be swift and visually cued, this a different from the concept of falling in love at first sight with a stranger.
“Do you believe in love at first sight or should I walk by again?” Unknown
Certainly, physical attraction to someone is a big factor in any relationship, and research supports the well-known concept that initial impressions have a significant influence on how a relationship progresses. But is the intensity of feeling the same for both parties? Does this matter in whether you can truly classify these fortuitous meetings as ‘love at first sight?’ Does the chance of reciprocation of feelings affect how strong that instant love is?
Another good question on this subject which researchers have exploded, is the idea of differing propensities to fall in love instantly? Are some of us more open to this dramatic spark of emotion than others?
Well Psychoanalyst Roland Gori believes we can create a frame of mind where we’re more likely to fall in love instantly.
This is the idea that if we are feeling a bit down, we are probably more likely to believe in the romantic notion that that tall, dark and handsome stranger walking our way is going to run off into the sunset with us.
She continues: ‘This may be more likely to happen to people who are susceptible to eye contact: holding the gaze of another person feels like an intense and intimate connection.’
Clearly for many couples, that instantaneous, all-consuming attraction can be the start of a fully fledged relationship, but whether that first moment can truly be described as love is still the centre of much debate. But if you are lucky enough to experience this whimsical moment in your lifetime, and if that chance encounter leads to a lasting relationship, then I don’t think having the support of the scientific community means diddly squat!
Keep your eyes open people!