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The Science of Falling in Love At First Sight

The idea is wonderful: your eyes meet a stranger’s from across a room, or you bump into each other on the road, and you immediately know this person is the one for you. But is love at first sight real? We tell you all about the facts behind it.

By Shreya Maji
18 Dec 2021

Love at first sight—Romeo and Juliet died for it, poets have written odes to it, Bollywood has made hundreds of movies about it. Hollywood star Emily Blunt famously first met her husband John Krasinski at a restaurant and knew within the next two hours that they were meant to be. But it is natural to wonder, is it real? Can people really fall for someone that they have just met, outside of a romance novel? Surprisingly, science says yes.

 

Related Story: How to Know You Have Found The One

 

What Happens To Your Brain In Love

When you fall in love, there is a chemical reaction happening inside your brain. Your brain produces a cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, vasopressin and oxytocin: all the neurotransmitters that give you the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with being in love. “The neural pathways in your brain that give you the feeling of romantic love are similar to that of hunger and thirst,” says Dr Helen Fisher, neurobiologist and anthropologist who has studied this phenomenon for years, in her Ted talk The Brain in Love. “And just like fear can be triggered instantly, love can also be triggered instantly.”

 

A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2012 shows that people tend to decide within minutes of knowing a person whether they are, or will be, romantically interested in them. This depends on two factors: either you are attracted to their physical beauty, or you find something about their personality particularly pleasing. Thus science suggests that love at first sight, might actually be closer to lust at first sight, and first impressions are paramount. But this is not a bad thing: the first attraction is what will help you want to get to know a person, and you might end up being in a committed relationship with them.

 

“As you grow up, you create what I call an unconscious love map,” continues Dr Fisher. “It is a list of things that you would like in an ideal partner. And when the timing is right, someone walks into the grocery store, or the museum, or the music concert, who fits right within your love map: they are the perfect age, size and shape for you. They smile at you, or perhaps exchange some words, and boom, you can fall in love immediately.”

 

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Do They Love You Back?

The short answer? No.

According to a study conducted by neuroscientist Florian Zsok at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2017, there are very few instances of reciprocal love at first sight. What happens instead is the halo effect: if you get into a relationship with someone whom you fell in love with right away, then chances are that your partner will retroactively embellish their past memory. Their present happy feelings about being in love with you will affect the story of how they felt when you first met, and make them think it was mutual from the very beginning. But once again, this is not a negative experience: it is more the colouring of an already happy event in an even fonder light.

 

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Is It Actually Love Or Just Infatuation?

This depends on what your idea of love is. But according to Dr Fisher, there are three distinct stages to being in love as is commonly understood: lust, attraction and attachment, and the last stage is what leads to a long relationship. Attachment is formed when you start to trust your partner: you open up to them, you let each other into your lives, you share your fears and worries, you do fun things together, and spend some quality time in each other’s company. For some people, this can take years. Yet the study by Zsok reports that if you experience love at first sight, then you are more open to these emotional experiences. Thus science is on the side of the romantics afterall.

 

Related Story: Green Flags: Signs of a Healthy Relationship

 

Can It Be Dangerous?

Love at first sight is mostly a positive experience. Leaning into and exploring the feelings of attraction and passion that you feel can be rewarding, and you might even find the person who ends up being your life partner. But what can become unhealthy is if you go headfirst into a relationship with someone you barely know. Zsok’s study also shows that you are unlikely to experience this phenomenon multiple times in your life. This means that if you notice a pattern of falling for people very quickly, then you might need to take a step back and re-evaluate your actual feelings.

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