The science of love at first sight

Scientific studies prove that love at first sight is physically rooted in the chemical reactions of our brains.

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Love at first sight as a concept still survives and is the basis of many a modern romantic comedy film or romance novel, but it has also been given credence through scientific research. A number of studies carried out in recent years conclude that it is in fact physically possible due to the release of chemicals in the brain that affect the intellect and cognitive functions - producing a feeling of euphoria.

Professor Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University in the US carried out a study in October 2010 on the subject and published her findings in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. She found that the quick release of chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenalin and vasopressin, some of which act in tandem, create a high that could be called falling in love.

"The findings beg the question, does the heart fall in love or the brain?" she says. "I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa. For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulation of the heart and butterflies in the stomach. Symptoms we feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain. These results confirm that feelings of love have a scientific basis."

Another study by C Neil Macrae, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College in the UK, published in the November 2002 issue of Psychological Science, suggests that ovulation heightens a woman's response to the pheromone androstenol, typically found in males. The study also suggests increased response to the sight of strong male facial features, such as an angled chin or a large forehead, that emphasise characteristics such as strength, aggression or dominance, which are likely to appeal to women looking for masculine mates.

Females, he says, prefer faces with typically male characteristics during ovulation and those with feminine traits at other points of their menstrual cycle. Meanwhile, men's notions of what is attractive (such as ideal hip-to-waist ratio) remain relatively constant over time.

And it seems there may be some truth to the bow and arrow theory. Macrae's study also found that a direct gaze was more likely to stimulate a response in the opposite sex.

So it may be physically possible, but just because you fall in love instantly does not mean your relationship will last, according to Dr Salida Afridi, a clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute Dubai.

"I consider love to be more than just an initial attraction; it's about being invested in another person's emotional and spiritual growth," Afridi says. "There are deeper issues than just beauty and attraction at play. So while it's possible to fall for someone initially on a superficial level, you have to work to keep the relationship alive."

What's more, she adds, the younger we are, the less developed our definition of love. "When we are young we don't understand the meaning of true love. We are more likely to think that love at first sight will last. Unfortunately this is not the case unless we work at it. Otherwise it typically lasts anywhere between three to four months and three to four years."

Dr Roghy McCarthy, who runs the Counselling and Development Clinic in Dubai, agrees. "A relationship is like a plant," she says. "If you do not feed it and water it and look after it, it will not grow and eventually it will shrivel up and die." She identifies four stages in a healthy marriage: love, commitment, honesty and respect - and says it is essential to have all four qualities for a relationship to last.

And she believes men are more likely to fall in love at first sight than women. "A man falls in love and instantly wants to possess a woman. Even if the woman is not in love with him she can be persuaded. However, it is rare for a woman to persuade a man who is not in love with her."