Can Instantaneous Love Really Happen Between Strangers?
Is Love at First Sight Real or Is It Just Lust?
As Homer Simpson saw Marge walk into the classroom for the first time, a song played in his head: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near? Just like me they long to be close to you.” And from that moment, Homer and Marge have had many years of love together. It truly was love at first sight. However, despite providing us with many laughs and quotes over the years, The Simpsons are fictional characters, as are many of the examples of instantaneous love which we see on our screens, big and small.
We’ve all watched a romcom (willingly or not) in which two people fall for each other after a chance meeting and spend the next 90 minutes or so trying to put aside silly differences to live happily ever after. Speaking of happily ever after, how many fairy tales do we see where two people meet and fall in love straight away with no notion of getting to know each other and seeing if their life goals are compatible? They just ride off into the sunset to their forever happiness. When the prince found Cinderella, all he needed to know was whether the slipper fit; that was enough to secure their forever after. Rapunzel and Snow White succumbed to immediate infatuation when their handsome princes rescued them too (and yes a lot of these old fairy tales are handsome men rescuing helpless beautiful women because, well, welcome to history).
What about real life? We all know couples who have said they knew immediately that their significant other was the one. Whether or not there is such a thing as “the one” or a “soulmate” is another question entirely, but can we fall in love with someone after meeting them only once? We know that there are some types of love that are pretty instant. For example, mothers often talk about the love they feel for their child as soon as they’re born, but can romantic love happen just as fast?
Let’s take a look at what happens in your brain when you fall in love, and whether or not it can happen straight away.
What is Love Anyway?
We’ve all thrown around the word love in different contexts. You’ve probably told a friend of yours you love them, and even said the same to your dog or cat. You might have enjoyed a big pizza which you’ve said you loved, and you may have responded “I’d love to!” when asked if you’d like to go somewhere. Just like the word hate, we throw the word love around freely, and sometimes without a great deal of emotion behind it.
It comes and goes throughout our lives. We feel love for someone and sometimes it fades. There will be unrequited love that will break our hearts, and there will be times when we look back and realize we actually weren’t as in love with someone as we thought we were. It comes in different strengths and different styles, and we act on it in different ways. There’s tough love and there’s wishing someone a lovely day, but what does it mean?
As we’ve touched on, there are different types of love. Romantic love, platonic love, and familial love all have different qualities and look different when expressed. But what the different types of lovehave in common is that they involve a degree of intimacy, a form of passion, and some kind of commitment. We can see this within our loving relationships. Even if we’re just friends with someone (i.e., we love them but aren’t interested in a sexual relationship), we’re still committed to each other to an extent (you spend time together), feel a passion for one another (you care for the other person), and there’s a degree of intimacy in the friendship (you are emotionally close). This holds true in a different way for family members. We are close to them, care for them, and have a commitment to be there for them.
Then there’s what we consider romantic love, which comes in different degrees. Specifically, it can be argued that there arethree stages in romantic love. At the start it’s the honeymoon phase where everything is great and you see the other person as completely perfect. You’re having fun in the bedroom, going out on romantic dates, and everything is going swimmingly. Then things calm down a little, and you start to notice that your companion is a real person who isn’t perfect. The party is over to an extent, and you have to learn how to coexist and compromise, a phase referred to as individuation. This is where many relationships fail. But if you make it through that, you get to the phase of mature love. It takes work, but in this phase you and your partner have a genuine level of intimacy that goes beyond physical attraction.
So, a romantic relationship goes through different phases—some more fun and physical, some more emotional—and it always takes work. But what happens in our brains when we’re in love?
What about love at first sight then? Can we fall for someone at a glance? Is one interaction enough for a special someone to steal your heart away? We’ve all had crushes, felt instant attraction, and had people we just seemed to click with, and when reflecting on lasting relationships we may retcon the past to form the idea that the love was immediate. But the question still remains: Can we really fall in love with someone the first time we meet them?
The idea itself is lovely, but, according to science, it doesn’t appear to be real.
Love or Lust?
Research into the topic of love suggests that there are many similarities between feelings of attraction toward someone, lust for someone, and emotional connection, and these feelings work together and reinforce one another. However, despite these feelings having characteristics in common, there are numerous distinctions in the way our brains process love and lust. The research mentioned states that attraction involves hormones like dopamine and cortisol, whereas finding someone sexually desirable is connected to the hormones testosterone and estrogen and is linked with the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with intense emotions. Attraction and sexual desire are linked to attachment, but crucially, attachment involves different neurotransmitters than those involved in sexual desire and attraction.
Basically, there is a neurological difference between love and lust, and what may feel like love at first sight is actually justfeeling lust for someone. While lust can be instantaneous, love takes time and is based onbehavior and feelings over a longer period. So, when it comes to romantic love, it doesn’t happen straight away.
The Brain in Love
When we think of love, we usually associate it with the heart, but really a lot of falling in lovehappens in the brain. The hormone involved in love is called oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced in both romantic and bonding love (e.g., the love between a mother and child), but it reacts differently in the body depending on the type of love.
Oxytocin can be produced by many activities that give us pleasure, such as playing with our dog orbeing hugged. It plays a role in the female body during pregnancy and childbirth and can actually make us feelanxiety or envy too.
When it comes to romantic love, oxytocin is produced in the magnocellular neurons, and is released into the bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid, which is the fluid that surrounds the brain. It really takes over your whole body! As the oxytocin moves around the body, it interacts with oxytocin receptors and activates them.
When we’re in love, the brain alsoreleases dopamine. This allows our body’s reward system to get working, which is why we feel good when we’re around someone we’re in love with. Studies have found that when we’re in the early stages of relationships we tend to feelhigher levels of oxytocin, which is why we experience the honeymoon phase. Interestingly, when we’re in love with someone, our bodiessynchronize nervous systems, which can feel as though we are at one with someone.
Falling in love is nice, but staying in love isn’t as easy. As we can see by the effects of love on our brains, we feel very intense, positive emotions at the start of a relationship, but that intensity does fade over time. The reality of having a loving relationship is that it takes work from the people involved.
Communication in relationships is important, so talk about everything fromwork to sexual preferences to passions to what your partner does that makes you grateful. Set aside some time in your day to speak with your partner, and remember, don’t just talk about the serious stuff, have fun too! Talk about things that make you laugh and stuff you enjoy as well as the difficult subjects.
It’s also important tospend time on yourself. We often think of our partner as our other half, but really, we need to be two well-rounded people to make something work. So, invest in your own well-being as well as your partner’s!
Love comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes. We can feel intense emotions for people that may feel like love, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if those feelings are ones of love or lust, but real lifelong love takes time and investment and a whole lot of work. The brain in love does many different things depending on the type of love. If you’re in a relationship, it’s important to always communicate. And remember: The first person you have to love is yourself!
About The Author
NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.
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