What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Less than a second to fall in love

It happens quick, feels great, but can't last.

Recent research by Stephanie Ortigue, Ph.D. at Syracuse University suggests that it takes only a fifth of a second to fall in love, thus validating those who have the experience of feeling "love at first sight." Even more significantly, when a person falls in love, it affects 12 areas of the brain, which then release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, and vasopression. This creates euphoria similar to the experience of using cocaine. In other words, falling in love happens quickly and results in feeling as "high as a kite."

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Falling in love also affects sophisticated thinking, such as mental representation, metaphors, and body image. All of this activity in the brain then stimulates the heart and the stomach, which is why we often feel as if love is located in our heart and gives us "butterflies" in our stomach. Our mind is filled with thoughts and associations and we feel resonant feelings in our heart and belly.

Besides providing validation to those who fall in love, these findings are important on a number of levels. For example, it deepens our understanding of the pain people feel when love doesn't work out. This experience can leave us feeling literally "heartbroken", and the sudden withdrawal of euphoria can leave us feeling depressed and emotionally stressed.

Further, this research gives us more insight into those people who struggle with what we might term "love addiction" - the compulsion to fall in love over and over again, and discard the relationship once the initial falling in love period is over. While clearly there are psychological reasons an individual might be "love addicted," the research gives us a neurological and biochemical explanations of the experience as well. This can help those of us who help people with this compulsion understand not only the psychological but physiologically-related interventions that could be helpful as well.

While falling in love takes less than a second and feels intensely wonderful, to sustain love over time is something entirely different. There are "highs" that occur on this path as well, but those "highs" are not, admittedly, like the intense euphoria of those initial stages. In some ways, it is a leap of faith for people who have never experienced it to decide to trade that "high" for the promise of rewards of a deeper and richer kind, especially if they have never seen a good example of it from anyone else. Therein lays the work: to help people take that leap of faith, moving from the pattern of high-heartbreak-high-heartbreak to the ability to sustain and grow something wonderful that can last.

 

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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