Sex + Love

Love at First Sight

What is it? Is it real? A semi-scientific inquiry.

Illustration by Ruby A.

Here’s what it feels like when it happens: First my earlobes get kind of hot and then my hearing goes all wahWAHwahWAh. Next, I feel warm in my cheeks and my stomach sort of drops like going over a hill and my fingers tingle and my heart starts to race. Only then does my brain engage, but all it says is “Go get that person and put their body inside our body and keep it there until the day one or both of you dies, which will hopefully be at the exact same time 70 years from this moment.” Love at first sight: It is what dreams, rom-coms, and the best, totally realistic and achievable R&B love songs are made of! But “love at first sight” can also produce some of the most comical, epically disastrous breakups possible. I should know. It’s something of a habit of mine.

My last one was about five years ago. I was freshly divorced (from a totally other love-at-first-sight situation) and had just moved to New York to work on a TV show. One of my jobs was to find and license the music on the show, only it wasn’t like the music on Glee or anything, it was mostly instrumentals. So I spent a lot of time getting in touch with musicians to get permission to use their music. We wanted to use a song by this one musician—or group? I had no idea. So I Googled them, found their Myspace, and got hit with a ton of love bricks. Looking back, the picture wasn’t even good—his eyes were squinted, his lip curled into a snarl. But at the time I didn’t interpret that as “grumpy and angry,” but rather as “icy and alone,” which led to the thought This man needs some warming up! I knew exactly nothing about him, except that he was a solo artist, not a group; I was 29 years old and already divorced once. I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, order, God, or a “plan.” But I literally thought, when I saw his picture, This person was MADE FOR ME.

I read his bio and learned that he lived in another country, which was no obstacle to our perfect union, as far as I was concerned. Within a few days we’d exchanged two emails and I was telling friends over dinner that I’d “finally found my person.” He could’ve been a mass murderer for all I knew, or had a girlfriend, which he did, which I DID know about, and here I was thinking the “stars had finally aligned” or something? Oh, and this was maybe the 10th time in my life I’d had this rare, magical experience so far. The first was in sixth grade, with a boy who never spoke to me but gave me his ID bracelet through a friend and let me wear it for a week before having that friend ask for it back. And the last time, when I was almost 30, it felt exactly the same, so you can see how much I learned from each of the eight interceding experiences. Nothing! But I blame nature—and not going to therapy soon enough.

There are biological and psychological causes for this overwhelming “love at first sight” feeling, and none of them involves some grand scheme where the universe creates two people who are perfect for each other and then waits 17 years to orchestrate entire school systems’ sports programs to ensure that they meet at an intramural volleyball tournament. The reality is that love at first sight is all in your head. You are actually making the whole thing up! Let’s look at the science.

There was a study done in Dublin recently that suggested that if you’re attracted to someone based on looks alone, you’ll probably still like them after talking to them for five minutes. Scientists there set up a speed-dating event and showed the participants pictures of everyone they were about to meet. If someone was attracted to another person based on their picture, it turned out, there was very little that the object of this attraction could say during such a short meeting to negate the attracted person’s initial desire. After their five-minute “dates,” the volunteers stuck with their appearance-alone choices 63% of the time. Which isn’t a huge majority, but my point is, this is what is happening when you fall in “love at first sight”: Your brain is going, “Oooh, that person is fine. And they are wearing a T-shirt of a band that I like! C’MON, LET’S QUIT SCHOOL/WORK, PACK UP OUR STUFF, AND MOVE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE TO ANOTHER COUNTRY TO BE WITH SOMEONE WE HAVE NEVER EVEN TALKED TO!” It doesn’t work like that, brains. You have to actually get to know people. Ugh, brains are so stupid!

You want to know what’s worse? The next thing that happens is that your brain reacts to this total stranger like they’re a drug you’re addicted to. Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, looked at MRIs of people in new relationships who described themselves as “madly in love,” and noticed that the reward and craving center in our brain—the ventral tegmental area, which happens to be the same place that jumps into action when someone uses cocaine—goes kind of nuts when we think about the person we’re in love with, and releases a ton of dopamine, aka the “pleasure chemical.” Over time, the more dopamine your brain gets, the more you want. So if someone, upon first glance, causes that part of your brain to fire, you might be on your way to becoming basically addicted to being around them. For all you know, they could have a totally incompatible sexual orientation at best, or hate rap music at worst, and here you are already under their spell.

Think about the strongest crush you’ve ever had: At the beginning of the crush, you can’t stop thinking about this person. Your only goal is to be near them as much as possible, and when you are, you’ve never been happier. This is awesome and can remain awesome if you get really lucky, but if you happen to fall in love with a jerk because you didn’t take the time to get to know them before you put all your eggs in their basket, it can be the most ridiculous situation in the world. Now think of when you’ve been your most heartbroken: You long even more desperately for that person and recall only the most romantic, positive parts of your time together. You feel more attached to them than when you got to be with them several times a week. How is this possible after they clearly stated that they don’t like you anymore and want you to go away? Because your brain craves the dopamine that they trigger, and addiction is stronger than reason. (Tangent: Let’s all practice not crushing on people who don’t like us.)

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54 Comments

  • rosiesayrelax February 4th, 2013 3:04 PM

    This was really interesting. I think I really like being in love, and so I love a lot of things/people. Sadly most of them are fictional *Sherlock Holmes*

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

  • AnaRuiz February 4th, 2013 3:31 PM

    I don’t think I believe in love at first sight…

    anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

    • thebrownette February 4th, 2013 9:27 PM

      my parents fell in love at first sight!

  • Maggie February 4th, 2013 3:32 PM

    This article rules. I get so annoyed when the moral of some movie is basically “listen to your heart” because, hello, your heart can lead you crazy astray. “Love at first sight is a feeling, not a commandment.” Thank you!!!!! I think if you can operate with the awareness that a wild crush is unsustainable and CERTAIN TO DIE- that awareness can give you the freedom to actually enjoy it (without it ruining your life). Crush responsibly!

    • Anaheed February 4th, 2013 7:00 PM

      I love “crush responsibly.”

      • giov February 5th, 2013 6:54 AM

        I think I found a new life motto.

  • Runaway February 4th, 2013 3:52 PM

    This is so funny…I’ve been listening to this song by Towa Tei nonstop for more than a week now:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7uPV7Adkzk

    As a crazy dopamine addict, thanks a lot for this piece.

  • faithdarwin February 4th, 2013 3:59 PM

    I have to say, I’ve never experienced love at first sight, and I’ve never related to any of my friends my friends who did. I’ve always had those friends who will tell me how totally in love they are with someone, and then two weeks later be completely done with that person and tell me how in love they are with a new guy. I usually only get crushes on people I’m at least friendly acquaintances with, and when I do get a crush on someone I barely know I feel weird and creepy about it, and I totally over-analyze my emotions, like “What’s wrong with me?! I keep facebook stalking him and I’ve barely even spoken to him! I need to stop this.” I guess I’m in the minority?

    • AnaRuiz February 4th, 2013 5:48 PM

      I feel the same way. I think it’s more like “obsession at first sight” than love. Love is a fuller thing than that

      • red lipped brunette February 7th, 2013 6:02 PM

        I totally agree with you. Just asking, where do you live? As you have a Spanish name I thought maybe we could get in touch, I´m from Argentina :)

  • Isabelle97 February 4th, 2013 4:01 PM

    OMG THAT PICTURE IS SO SWEET! Also, the comment ” It’s even fun to have five crushes at once, one for each of your different alter egos. ” is basically me. I’m quite happily aware that I’m not ready to get in a relationship with anyone but that doesn’t stop me getting all starry eyed over both my male politics teacher AND the girl who sits next to me. They’re both totally gorgeous and, needless to say, politics is my favourite class right now ;)

  • LadyKatie February 4th, 2013 4:20 PM

    fangirling because your husband is on guy code. HES HILAR, what a catch! :)

  • emine February 4th, 2013 4:57 PM

    I experience love at first and only sight? I like seeing someone that I don’t know at all from afar who is physically attractive and then dreaming up a personality for him. They’re just momentary crushes, but definitely a lot of fun :) I love this month’s theme!

  • ladiesfirst February 4th, 2013 5:07 PM

    Ahh your husband is so cute!

  • Violet February 4th, 2013 5:11 PM

    Loved this loved this loved this !!!
    it’s so true !!!

  • AmyL February 4th, 2013 5:13 PM

    This was AMAZING.

    intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • GlitterKitty February 4th, 2013 5:41 PM

    This explains so much about the last 2 years of my life….

  • decemberbaby February 4th, 2013 5:43 PM

    This is a really cool article. I’ve learned a lot more recently than I ever used to know about how people have to kind of learn to be in love… they might reallllllyyy like each other, but it does take effort and intention to get a relationship to work. That’s never included in the Disney romance prototype that we’re raised on.

  • Kayla Marie February 4th, 2013 5:46 PM

    Your husband is on guy code!!! Am I the only female person that loves that show?? Btw, your husband is amazing, but I’m sure you already know this

  • kirsten February 4th, 2013 6:31 PM

    that picture of your husband is amazing!!

  • sophiethewitch February 4th, 2013 6:33 PM

    Great article. I don’t believe in love at first sight. I think LAFS has a lot to do with our societal idea of “one love,” one right person for everyone. Which is just so statistically improbable, considering how many people there are in the world, what a small portion of those people any one individual meets, and what a weirdly big number of humans, considering that, find their “one.” The feeling we get that we call love at first sight isn’t about who you should have a relationship with, it’s about who you should have a one night stand with. It’s how we evolved to pick out people to have sex with, a lot of which is based on natural selection and reproducing with people more likely to make healthy babies. And physical appearance is, from an evolutionary perspective, a pretty okay way to decide that.

    I do think you kind of oversimplified dopamine, because it’s released anytime you’re happy, not just because of love or drugs.

  • StrawberryTwist February 4th, 2013 6:40 PM

    I wish to believe in love at first sight because I love the thought of it. It reminds me of Romeo and Juliet, which their love was endless.

    http://fashiononfire.org/

  • JezebelRose February 4th, 2013 7:28 PM

    “BRB” — I love it! <3 <3 <3

    So good, Jane! Your list also reminds me of some advice a friend told me once, as I was pulling my hair out over a silly boy who couldn't/wouldn't tell me what HE wanted in terms of a relationship: "Well, what do YOU want?" Until she asked me, I had never even thought about it.

  • Ms.O February 4th, 2013 7:34 PM

    Wow, I literally never thought about “love at first sight” and now you’ve given me the information to answer those questions if I come across them. AND OMG THE ENDING CUTE CUTE CUTE

  • silvermist February 4th, 2013 7:56 PM

    Lots of feels about this. And the picture is so cute <3

    When I was 12 I read this brazilian children book by Jorge Amado that had a paragraph on love at first sight that has stayed with me since then. This is my sloppy translation of it:
    "I wish to say there are people who don't believe in love at first sight. Others, on the contrary, believe this is the only form of true love. Everyone is right. Love is in the heart of creatures, sleeping, and one day it wakes up with the arrival of spring or even in the harsh winter. All of a sudden, love wakes from its sleep on the vision of another being. Even if we already met, it's as if we are looking at the other for the first time and that's why people say it's love at first sight."

    This has somehow proved to be accurate for me; for every person I was in love with I can point a moment when I looked at them and they looked different from before and it felt magical and it made me think 'we should kiss/date/be together forever!' It's my personal definition of love at first sight :)

    • Yani February 5th, 2013 4:25 AM

      awww this is the most beautiful comment I’ve ever read on the internet. xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    • Miarele February 6th, 2013 10:57 PM

      That passage was beautiful, just beautiful. I think I’m gonna write it down in my journal so it can stay with me too. Thank you for sharing it <333

  • Abby February 4th, 2013 8:12 PM

    SUPER JEALOUS OF YOUR HUSBAND… he’s cute and sweet!! This was an awesome article… I’m not usually one to crush hard… but I still liked it!

  • TinyWarrior February 4th, 2013 11:20 PM

    I can totally relate to the part about falling for someone who you wouldn’t think you would. I fell in love this past fall with a guy who I used to make fun of my friends for liking, and then in late December/early January I fell COMPLETELY head over heels for his best friend (a guy who I would never have pictured myself loving a year ago). LOVE IS SURPRISING AND WONDERFUL, GUYS.

    Also, the ending of your article is sososo adorable. ♥

  • stellar February 4th, 2013 11:21 PM

    it’s hard to know whether it’s worth it or not!

  • Starsplitter February 5th, 2013 1:15 AM

    OMG i read this article and loved it and then saw your husband is on guy code and i LOVE that show, it and your hubby cracks me up. great article :))

  • Seat1one February 5th, 2013 3:13 AM

    I have never been in love at first sight. I’ve been in…love at first joke? Something like that.

  • diniada13 February 5th, 2013 5:33 AM

    I don’t believe in love in first sight. If you experience it you’re in love with their physical appearance, not them, and you’re just obsessed. I’m sorry I tend to be over-logical about these things xD

  • Pipstar February 5th, 2013 6:14 AM

    I loved this article, and your husband is lovely :) The real deal! xx

  • Melisa February 5th, 2013 6:53 AM

    You know, the way I’ve tried to understand “love at first sight” is to think that it is infatuation rather than actual love. Love is a pretty damn strong word, and I just don’t believe you could immediately connect in that level and care deeply about a person without knowing them deeply as well first.

    Anywayzzzz, this article is so well written. The ending makes me gush inside and smile and fantasize about a similar situation that I know I’ll have in the future with someone I love and who loves me back. <3

  • soretudaaa February 5th, 2013 10:12 AM

    I feel kind of sorry for people who are unable to randomly fall in love at first sight because even though they’ll suffer from far less heartaches, it’s the greatest feeling I know while it lasts.

  • Mintvirgin February 5th, 2013 10:43 AM

    to my mind, love at first time seems beautiful and colorful, but when you return from clouds to the Earth, you understand how silly you were. when I have last period, I become thinking about my life and tiny moments that made it different. what is love? – my question was. not at all roses, bunches of flowers and candies or? that thought was the first smart thought at all month. oh I was so tired of my feelings! and now I want to be a lesbian. no, I want to love no one, that is true!

    mintirgin.blogspot.ru

  • wallflower152 February 5th, 2013 10:47 AM

    I like how this is a logical look at love. Love is nothing more than chemicals in our brains that evolved to help the species to survive. You fall in romantic love because your body wants you to reproduce, even if you don’t want kids and even if your affections aren’t directed at someone of the opposite gender. Parents love their kids because they want their genes to continue. Kids love their parents because they help them survive. Friends love each other because people survive better in groups. Not to be cold and unromantic, I love my family and friends and bf. I’ve heard of Helen Fischer and her work, I think the science behind love is SO interesting. If you do too I totally recommend Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast–feminism, women’s history, women’s health, trivia related to womanly things and LOTS of scientific stuff! I’ve said it before but I just love it a lot and I think other Rookies would too.

  • llorona February 5th, 2013 12:16 PM

    Thank you for writing this! And here I thought I was alone (or worse there was something w r o n g with me) because I was always drawn to people who would eventually hurt me. I will take your advice!

  • Nimble February 5th, 2013 5:15 PM

    This is great! I’m having a love at first sight experience and as much as I hate to admit it, it obviously won’t work out. But, we can still be friends, which is cool.
    And even though hot guys on my swim team will make me flip out, I will keep your advice in mind.

  • barbroxursox February 5th, 2013 9:05 PM

    I recently had a “love at first sight” moment on tumblr… I fell in love with a dude’s icon. Then I did some major creepin’ and found his instagram and fell even more in love. But then I realized I was being really stalker-y. It fizzled out quickly.

    http://lizard-on-a-window-pane.tumblr.com

  • pinmq February 6th, 2013 10:34 PM

    grrrrreat story, thank you so much for writing it, jane! i can guarantee that this will help me, and i’m sure lots of other rookies, to ~calm down~ when it comes to finding the “right” person :) i just got out of a short but meaningful relationship and reading this made me feel a lot better about everything, so thanks xx

  • ivory-shakes February 7th, 2013 4:13 PM

    I’m currently trying to get over a crush.. Literally as we speak. We’ve met twice and we text almost every day and whilst people say something could happen, it doesn’t seem like he’s as into me as I am into him. I’m away this weekend so I won’t be able to see him and I’ll know he’ll kiss another girl and it’ll break my heart and I need to get over it and stop being pathetic. I’m sorry about how long this is but I just need to get it out of my system and talk to anyone. I’m so confuuuuuuuuuused!

  • Thisis40ish February 11th, 2013 2:47 PM

    Crushes.. a reason to shave your legs and get out the door on a Monday morning..

    http://thisis40ish.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-crush.html

  • mack February 13th, 2013 3:03 PM

    this is the BEST article i have ever read about Love and Relationships. EVER.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 5th, 2013 7:42 AM

    Hmm… interesting…

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 5th, 2013 7:44 AM

      PS your Julian story is so sweet ♥

  • kelsey June 16th, 2013 6:13 PM

    Found my chappie through the “just friends” route and it was the best, most natural and lovely thing ever, basically. Because I didn’t have a gigantic, debilitating crush on him I was able to just hang out and be myself. And so when he said he got up the guts to share his feeeeelings with me, I knew he didn’t like me because I was a nervous, giggling wreck – he liked me for ME.