Is love at first sight real?

two men walking hand in hand in a park
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In the euphoric haze of new romance, it may be easy to believe that two strangers can fall in love the first time they meet. But is love at first sight real?

There is a lot going on physiologically that can make the early stages of romance feel like love — from causing an influx of hormones to activating areas of the brain that correspond with addictive behaviors. However, some researchers argue that love at first sight is just lust and that actual love comes later, once the partner bond has been established. 

Love or lust?

So, what is love? Aside from a chart-topping song by Haddaway, there can be several different definitions of love. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, love is a “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” while a team of scientists from Rutgers University, New Jersey, suggested that love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction and attachment.

Attraction, lust and attachment are connected and reinforce each other, according to a 2016 review in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. However, they are distinct processes in the brain, "each mediated by its own neurotransmitters and circuits," the researchers wrote in the review. While the hormones testosterone and estrogen, piloted by the amygdala — the area of the brain that regulates emotions — are responsible for lust, attraction is determined by the stress and reward centers — the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental. The neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline and cortisol are all engaged when a person feels attracted to someone. When it comes to attachment, oxytocin and vasopressin are more dominant. 

Young man staring at a beautiful woman in the city park

(Image credit: Getty Images)

So an initial attraction towards someone probably isn't love, said Dr. Deborah Lee, a reproductive health specialist and medical writer for Dr Fox Online Pharmacy in England. "Psychologists dispute that it is possible to experience true love when you first set eyes on another person," she told Live Science. "This is because love develops over time as you begin to love the other person's mind, values and skills. True love is not just about sexual attraction and passion."

Related: 12 scientifically proven signs you're in love

When it comes to love at first sight, the feeling is more likely to be one of lust, said Eric Ryden, a doctor of clinical psychology and couples therapist at Couples Therapy clinic in England. "[And] those lovely intoxicating feelings do not last," he told Live Science. "Also, if one is seeking a long-term partner, love at first sight is not a sign that you have found the right one. [It] is more related to physical attraction and lust than long-lasting romantic love."

Eric Ryden clinical psychologist
Eric Ryden

Eric Ryden is a doctor of clinical psychology and has spent his career studying, researching and practicing what works best for couples therapy. He is a British Psychological Society chartered consultant psychologist with ten years' experience working for the National Health Service in the U.K, and as a private practitioner. 

Chemical love

A lot of what people perceive as love is a cocktail of hormones released to give their nervous system feelings of pleasure and security. 

"Love affects both the mind and body in dramatic ways," Ryden said. "In tandem with euphoria and obsessive thoughts, there is an increased secretion of happy hormones, mainly dopamine — linked with reward and pleasure — and oxytocin — sometimes called the love hormone because of its association with feeling warm, love and trust." As we saw earlier, these hormones tend to be higher during the attachment phase, rather than initial lust or attraction. 

Love or addiction?

The early stages of love can look similar to addiction, Lee said: Similar areas of the brain activate during both early love and cocaine addiction. 

"When a lover is focused on their partner, they feel crazy, experience mood swings along with bouts of euphoria, act obsessively and/or compulsively, are living in a distorted reality and often become dependent on the other person — in just the same way as a person behaves when addicted to cocaine," Lee said.

However, these feelings mellow as the relationship ages, and the later stages of romantic love no longer mimic drug addiction, according to a 2016 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Warped memories

According to a 2012 article in the Journal of Neuroscience, memories can be altered when people recall them, often influenced by the emotional state someone is in when they remember. The next time someone recalls that same memory, it will be further warped from the previous time. Perceptions of one’s partners and how someone may initially feel about them might therefore be distorted by current feelings for them. So while people may think it was love at first sight, that might not have been the case. 

In addition to distorted recall, a person’s perception of their partner is generally in a positive light or bias, due to a phenomenon known as "positive illusion." A 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that the happiest couples are those who view one another through "rose tinted glasses," experiencing less conflict and doubt and increased relationship satisfaction. Positive illusion may also trick people into thinking they were in love from day one, when it actually took a little longer to get there.  

Lou Mudge
Health Writer

Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives. 

She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.