The idea of love at first sight isn’t new (lookin’ at you, Romeo and Juliet). But since Shakespeare’s days, neurologists have discovered a lot about what love does to our brains on a biological level. We now know that hormones and chemicals influence our decision-making and interpretation of events. We’ve coldly categorized love into specific stages, types and communication styles. Yet, there’s still something magically immeasurable about love at first sight, which is probably why 56 percent of Americans believe in it. So, what is that feeling—and is love at first sight real?
Gabrielle Usatynski, MA, a licensed professional counselor and author of the forthcoming book, The Power Couple Formula, says, “The question of whether or not love at first sight is real depends on what we mean by the word ‘real.’ If the question is, ‘Can we fall in love at first sight?’ The answer is yes. If the question is, ‘Is love at first site love?’ Well, that depends on how you define the word ‘love.’”
Everyone’s definition may be different, so consider that as you read all about the marvel that is love at first sight.
Lust, evolution and first impressions
Science and reason tell us love at first sight is actually lust at first sight. There’s no way love—at least intimate, unconditional, committed love—can occur between two people who have never met or spoken to each other. Apologies, Romeo.
However! First impressions are incredibly powerful and real experiences. Our brains take between one tenth of a second and half a minute to establish a first impression. Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov tells the BBC that within an alarmingly short amount of time, we decide whether someone is attractive, reliable and evolutionarily dominant. Ned Presnall, a LCSW and nationally recognized expert on mental health, categorizes this moment as part of the approach-avoidance conflict.
“As humans, we have evolved to rapidly respond when an object of high survival salience crosses our path. Highly desirable mates are [important] for us to successfully pass on our genetic code,” says Presnall. “When you see someone who causes you to experience ‘love at first sight,’ your brain has identified them as a resource that’s incredibly important in securing the birth and survival of children.”
Basically, we see a potential mate that looks like a solid candidate for reproduction, we lust after them, we think it’s love at first sight, so we approach them. The only problem? Professor Todorov says humans tend to stick to first impressions even after time has passed or we learn new, contradicting information. This is known as the halo effect.
What’s the ‘halo effect’?
“When people discuss love at first sight, most are referencing what is really an instant physical connection,” says Marisa T. Cohen, PhD. “Due to the halo effect, we may infer things about people based on that initial impression.” Because someone looks attractive to us, it influences how we see their other attributes. They’re good-looking, so they must also be funny and smart and rich and cool.
Brains in love
Dr. Helen Fisher and her team of scientists at Rutgers University blame the brain for this halo effect—and more. They say the three categories of love are lust, attraction and attachment. Lust is often the initial stage and the one most closely linked with love at first sight. When we lust after someone, our brains tell our reproductive systems to produce extra testosterone and estrogen. Again, evolutionarily, our bodies think it’s time to reproduce. We’re laser focused on approaching and securing that mate.
Attraction is next. Fueled by dopamine, a reward hormone directly associated with addiction, and norepinephrine, the fight or flight hormone, attraction characterizes the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Interestingly, love at this stage can actually lower our serotonin levels, resulting in suppressed appetite and larger mood swings.
“Your limbic system (the ‘want’ part of your brain) kicks in, and your prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of your brain) takes a backseat,” Presnall says of these early stages.
These feel-good, drop-everything-to-be-with-them hormones convince us we are experiencing true love. Technically, we are! The hormones and the feelings they produce are real. But lasting love doesn’t occur until the attachment phase. After we actually get to know a partner over a lengthier period of time, we find out if lust has grown into attachment.
During attachment, our brains produce more oxytocin, a bonding hormone that is also released during childbirth and breastfeeding. (It’s been called the cuddle hormone, which is cute AF.)
Studies on love at first sight
There haven’t been many studies done on the phenomenon of love at first sight. The ones that do exist focus heavily on heterosexual relationships and stereotypical gender roles. So, take the following with a grain of salt.
The most frequently quoted study comes from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Researcher Florian Zsok and his team found love at first sight does not occur frequently. When it occurred in their study, it was based overwhelmingly on physical attraction. This supports theories stating we’re actually experiencing lust at first sight.
Though over half of the participants in Zsok’s study identified as female, the male-identifying participants were more likely to report falling in love at first sight. Even then, Zsok and his team labeled these instances as outliers.
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit to come out of Zsok’s study is there were no instances of reciprocal love at first sight. None. Which makes it more likely that love at first sight is a highly personal, solitary experience.
Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t still happen.
Signs it may be love at first sight
Couples who insist they fell in love at first sight may be retroactively applying that label to their initial meeting. After they’ve moved past lust and attraction and into attachment, they may look back fondly on the course of their relationship and think, “We knew right away this was it!” If you’re curious whether you’re experiencing love at first sight, consider the following signs.
1. You’re obsessed with knowing more
One beautiful takeaway from Zsok’s study is that experiencing love at first sight may simply be an urgent desire to know more about a perfect stranger. It’s the sensation of being open to infinite possibilities with another human being—which is pretty cool. Indulge that instinct but beware of the halo effect.
2. Consistent eye contact
Since reciprocal love at first sight is even rarer than experiencing it on your own, pay close attention if you continue making eye contact with the same person over the course of an evening. Direct eye contact is incredibly powerful. Studies show our brains actually trip up a bit during eye contact because we’re realizing there’s a conscious, thoughtful person behind those eyes. If you can’t keep your eyes off each other’s brains, it’s worth checking out.
3. Lust is accompanied by a feeling of comfort
“If we like what we see, we may feel overwhelming senses of comfort, curiosity and hopefulness,” says Donna Novak, a licensed psychologist at Simi Psychological Group. “It's possible to believe these feelings are love, as someone is just astounded at what they are witnessing.” Trust your gut if it sends signals of lust and hope.
Signs it might not be love at first sight
There’s a lot going on in your brain already on a normal day, so give yourself a break when you’re confronted with a potential mate. Your nervous and endocrine systems are going haywire, and you’re bound to misfire every now and then. It’s probably not love at first sight if…
1. It’s over as soon as it started
If there’s no lingering desire to know more and your initial physical attraction to the person in question fades as soon as someone new walks in, it’s probably not love at first sight.
2. You’re projecting too soon
Dr. Britney Blair, who is board certified in sexual medicine and is the Chief Science Officer of the sexual wellness app Lover, warns against letting personal narratives take over in the chemistry department.
“If we attach a certain narrative to this neurochemical explosion (‘she's the only one for me…’) we may cement the impact of this natural neurochemical process, for better or for worse.” Basically, don’t write the RomCom before you’ve met the love interest.
3. Your body language disagrees with you
You could meet the most physically stunning specimen you’ve ever come across, but if your gut tightens or you subconsciously find yourself crossing your arms and positioning yourself away from them, listen to those signals. Something’s off. You don’t need to wait around to find out what it is if you don’t want to. Dr. Laura Louis, a licensed psychologist and owner of Atlanta Couple Therapy, advises looking for these signs in the other person, too. “Ease of speech and body language are both factors in first impressions,” she says. “If you first meet someone who doesn’t seem that interested in talking to you (i.e. arms crossed, looking away, etc.) it can be really off putting.”
When in doubt, give it time. Love at first sight is an exciting, romantic notion, but definitely not the only way to meet the partner of your dreams. Just ask Juliet.