The following article was first published in RWA/NYC’s January Keynote’s Newsletter (2014).
We all know how important it is, that first meet-cute. For a romance novel, it is arguably the make or break component of the entire book. Typically, our heroes and heroines become star-crossed at a moment of conflict (if you want your book to sell), and that conflict is complicated by an undeniable physical attraction. A sensual chemistry that is impossible to ignore, struggle as they might. But what is the root of this chemistry? What makes one person feel dumb struck, and the other hold back? Is there such a thing as love at first sight? According to neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author, Dr. Amen, there are four phases of love: attraction, infatuation, commitment, and detachment.
- Attraction: Attraction is a craving for sexual gratification and is primarily driven by male and female hormones (testosterone and estrogen), the chemical nitric oxide, and potentially pheromones. Men tend to be attracted to symmetrical, fertile, healthy, younger-looking women (big surprise), and the visual system is sensually dominant in men. Studies have shown when men are exposed to pictures of beautiful women, their limbic system fires up (controlling emotion and motivation) and their pre frontal cortex heads south (abandoning the areas controlling judgment). In other words, beautiful women make men stupid. Interestingly, when women were exposed to images of attractive men, their brain activity showed no changes in judgment, though they may have reported an equal level of interest. Women are more concerned with how a man thinks and acts. So despite the myth of the fairer sex being “overly romantic” (or overly emotional), according to Dr. Amen, men are more likely to fall in love at first sight, than women.
- Infatuation: Infatuation is not so much of an emotion as it is a “motivational drive” fueled by the chemicals involved in the brain’s reward system; epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine (PEA). Epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced in the adrenal glands, spinal cord and brain and are considered excitatory neurotransmitters causing an “adrenaline rush” after the initial phase of attraction. Dopamine is associated with pleasure, motivation, and concentration (“Why can’t I get him out of my head?”). Serotonin is the “feel good” chemical producing feelings of satisfaction with a partner. And PEA is an adrenaline-like substance known as the “love molecule” that initiates the flood of chemicals, creating that euphoric feeling.
- Commitment: After a period of six months to two years, the brain eventually downshifts from infatuation into a desire to commit (otherwise, people would collapse from maintaining a lust-crazed state). Oxytocin and Vasopressin are the chemicals involved in this drop off. Oxytocin is related to feelings of closeness and being “in love.” Higher levels of oxytocin are also associated with increased feelings of trust. Vasopressin is involved in regulating sexual persistence, assertiveness, dominance, and territorial markings. Notably, while men might be attracted and fall in love more quickly than women, this chemical switch-over into committed feelings is more likely to occur in women first.
- Detachment: Sometimes when the infatuation chemicals drop off, people mistake the lack of intensity and euphoria with falling out of love. Also, because they feel the withdrawal from infatuation chemicals, they seek other partners or stimulating substances to re-create that feeling. When we fall in love with someone, they become imbedded in the Limbic part of our brains. When we cannot interact with our love object as we are used to, that part of the brain becomes inflamed looking for him/her. This inflammation is associated with low serotonin levels which leads to depression, trouble sleeping, feeling obsessed, loss of appetite, and wanting to isolate ourselves. Additionally, a deficit in endorphins, which modulates pain and pleasure pathways in the brain, may be responsible for why we feel physical pain during a breakup. You’re heart, quite literally, aches.
So, yes. It is possible to fall in love at first sight, but it is more likely to happen to men. Unfortunately, men are less likely to commit before a woman (how’s that for a horny, thorny rose?). While bonding chemicals are essential for a relationship to develop, Dr. Amen also emphasizes that communication and mutual support are essential for pushing initial attraction into the realm of commitment. But if you happen to find yourself caught up in the “fishhooks” of detachment, be sure to stay healthy and avoid idealizing your past partner. As Dr. Amen states, “Being well is not only the best revenge, it’s the best way to be.”