Is “Love at First Sight” Really Possible?

Although the idea of love at first sight makes for great stories, is it biologically possible? Can two people instantly fall in love and live happily ever after or is there something awry? The short answer to the first question does love at first sight exist is…envelope please… no. The answer to the second question…is there something awry? The answer is yes.

We have all heard the story. Two young people bump into each other and something comes over them. They look deep into each other’s eyes and they know. This is the person they are supposed to be with for the rest of their lives. They don’t even know each other’s name yet, but they immediately know they are supposed to be together – they call it destiny. Sound crazy?

Not according to a 2013 Reuter’s poll. In it, Reuter’s found that fifty-six percent of Americans believed in love at first sight. But, I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise in a nation that loves instant coffee, on demand movies and fast food. Why wouldn’t we believe instantaneous love?

In fact, this idea is the basis for many popular stories and movies. Like the scene from West Side Story where Tony meets Maria. They spot each other from across the room. They get tunnel vision as all activity in the room fades away. They can only see each other and are drawn to one another like magnets. Or, how about the often-quoted line from the movie Jerry Maguire where Dorothy (Renée Zellweger) spoke those infamous words, “You had me at hello.”

The truth is, biologically speaking, love at first sight is a trick. When you first meet someone you are attracted to, your body releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. You are probably more familiar with its cousin adrenaline. Like adrenaline, norepinephrine is part of your fight or flight response. That’s what causes all those signs of love at first sight such as rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, and a feeling of nervousness.

In fact, fear heightens a person attraction. Researchers decided to test this theory. They went to the Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas and asked riders to rate photographs of individuals for attractiveness and dating desirability. One group was asked before getting on the roller coaster, and the other group was asked after getting off the roller coaster. Then they compared the results. Consistent with the theory that fear and excitement enhance a person’s attraction with another, the ratings of attractiveness and dating desirability were higher among persons exiting the ride. That means during times of heightened arousal, you are more likely to find the person next to you attractive.

This is not something new. People have known about it for years. In fact, it’s the basis for the ride called the tunnel of love. In this type of amusement park ride, a couple rode in a two-passenger boat though a dark passage. The theory was that they could cuddle in the darkness, or when it got too spooky they would cling to each other. At first they were called old mill rides, but later nicknamed the tunnel of love because of the results. The fear experienced during the ride increased the couple’s attraction to each other.

We are not the only species on the planet to use this ruse. Researchers in southwest Kenya found that male topi, a type of antelope, uses fear to get sex. When a female in heat would walk through the male’s territory, he would snort an alarm signal indicating a predator such as a lion was near. So instead of walking out of his territory, the now frightened female would stay close to the male. This, the biologist found, would increase his chances of mating with her. In fact, the males that use this deceptive tactic increased his mating opportunities by three times.

Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Monterotondo, Italy found that fear uses the same brain path as the reproduction circuit. . This is why biology students refer to fear response as the four F’s. When you face danger you have four biological options – fight, flight, feed, or f…have sex.

But why would Mother Nature wire us to get sexually attracted during a stressful time? Biologically speaking the linkage of fear and sex makes perfect sense. Its nature’s way of making sure that we survive. If you became afraid and ran and hide, you would survive. But if you became afraid and run and hide with that now quite attractive person next to you, chances are you would not only survive, you would do your part to help repopulate the planet. For example, there are major bumps in population after major crises like the Black Death in 1400s and the plague during the 1600s. We also see increase birth rates after war like the baby boom after World War II.

So the next time, you met someone and believe its love at first sight. Just remember it might just be Mother Nature trying to get you in to bed.

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