What Actually Happens When We Experience Love at First Sight?

exploring physiological responses of intense longing

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Most of us have had the experience of meeting someone and immediately experiencing a deep attraction or even love for that individual. Professor Vishton describes the process from a neuroscience perspective and explains why first impressions aren’t everything.

Happy individuals talking to each other at bar
Studies conducted while a person thinks about or looks at a photograph of someone they romantically love show that the neuroscience marker of romantic attraction is actually greater water volume in the skin, leading to sweating. Photo By Dragon Images / Shutterstock

Is “Love at First Sight” Real?

Have you ever experienced or heard someone describe “love at first sight”? Most relationship science experts would refer to this feeling as “lust at first site,” but the phenomenon is still there. 

The idea is that you see “that special someone,” the music swells, and a life-long love affair begins. However, studies on the phenomenon suggest that real life doesn’t often work that way. 

How attracted you are to someone on day one of knowing him or her isn’t a perfect predictor of how attractive you will find them on day seven. For day 700, the connection is even weaker.

“There’s a tip to be had here about searching for love,” Professor Vishton said. “It sounds a little corny, but the data support it. You should keep an open mind and an open heart. Even if ‘love at first sight’ doesn’t show up at all, it doesn’t mean that ‘love at thousandth sight’ isn’t on its way.”

Defining Love

Neuroscientists, along with poets and many other writers, have struggled for a good, operational definition of love. Certainly, many different kinds of love exist including parental love, sibling love, love of friends, love of music and art, and love of community. 

The first definition of love that comes to mind for most people, however, is romantic love. Most people accept a working definition of romantic love as: “a state of intense longing for union with another.”

How does the brain function differently when you feel this state of intense longing? This has often been studied by recording nervous system activity while a person thinks about or looks at a photograph of someone for whom they feel romantic love. 

The data is then contrasted with the nervous system activity while looking at other photos—for example, photos of other familiar people for whom the participants do not feel love. This detail is important, as familiarity matters a lot in terms of how the brain responds.

The “Charge” of Love

One of the most consistent neuroscience markers for love or longing is found completely outside the brain—in the skin. Your skin contains some water such that it can conduct electricity. 

When you’re generally aroused by something, your body ramps up its activity and begins to push more water into the skin. If the process continues long enough, you’ll begin to sweat. Long before that sweating starts, however, this greater water concentration results in a lower electrical resistance.

When you look at a picture of someone you love, your skin conductance level rises within a few seconds—quite consistently, actually. Within about three seconds of the appearance of an image, the skin conductance rises and continues doing so for several seconds thereafter.

At the same time, at least two other events occur in the peripheral nervous system. First, the zygomatic muscles of the face become slightly tensed, with tension that we can measure in terms of electrical activity. 

If you put an electromyograph over these cheek muscles in the face, an increase in electrical activity is found. When these particular muscles are fully tensed, they pull the sides of your mouth upward in a smile.

Monday’s article will explore more of the physiological effects that accompany the sensation of intense romantic love or lust—specifically, what occurs in the brain—and how someone may literally become “addicted to love.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.