At First Sight
Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill, 1999.
Life rolls on its course, and then it happens. They happen. Eyes lock. Energies surge. Then, all thoughts start drifting back to Them. Your pulse is racing and that euphoria, it’s reflected in the bluest of skies.
Love, or something like it. A hurricane force wielding power to create and destroy, to alter paths of life and art. Sometimes it hits you all at once. Other times, you don’t feel its potency until you’re already in the grip of addiction.
John Lennon found it in Yoko Ono at the Indica Art Gallery, London, in November 1966: “We locked eyes and she got it and I got it and that was it.” Artist Diego Rivera felt “a strange fire” in future wife Frida Kahlo’s eyes on their very first meeting. When they finally re-entered each other’s lives four years later, he wrote, “I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life.” The iconic romance of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin was slow-burning at first and then it happened, all at once. “He was reeling from the pain of a brief affair with Brigitte Bardot, and I was reeling from the pain of John Barry,” remembers Birkin. “But Serge managed to rub out all the sadness. It was wildly romantic ...”
Arthur Aron, PhD, research professor at Stony Brook University, NY, was a graduate social psychology student when he found his muse, and now wife and collaborator, Elaine Aron. “The norm in social psychology, in those days, was to look for some topic that people thought couldn’t be studied scientifically and do it. And I fell in love, and it was very intense, and I looked into the research literature and there was very little and I said, hey, here’s my topic.”
From that moment forward, Aron has devoted much of his life’s work not to the art, but the science, of love, driven by an interest that reflects his own experience. “What fascinates me most about love? Its intensity as a motivation. And that’s really interesting, how something sort of out of the blue – although we’re often searching for it – just redirects one’s life in a huge way.
“You know people like to think passionate love is one of the greatest things and when it’s reciprocated, it’s working out, it is. When it’s not, it’s one of the worst things. It’s a major source of depression and suicide. One of the reasons we’ve been able to get funding for our research is the negative side. If you think, in the West, what is our iconic case of intense romantic love? It’s Romeo and Juliet … How did that work out?”
And yet we fall, again and again, against our better judgement. The excitement, passion, even under the looming threat of pain, it’s too hard to resist. It’s part of being human.
It was Einstein who said, “you can’t blame gravity for falling in love”. But as it turns out, you can blame biology. Connecting with that person sets off figurative fireworks in the brain. It stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with passion, addiction and euphoria (new research suggests it may even effect how we see colour), as well as a dose of adrenaline – cue sweaty palms, increased heart rate and dilated pupils. With that first touch comes the release of oxytocin, dubbed the love hormone, increasing feelings of attachment. We never stood a chance.
“When someone’s in love,” explains Aron, “the easiest way to tell is just to ask them, but we can also tell by measuring their brain responses … We can measure their hormones … We can measure how closely they’ll sit together afterwards.”
In studying the effects of love on the human brain, somewhere along the line Aron found himself playing cupid. In 1991 he supervised a dissertation titled Intimacy: Negotiating Closeness and Distance, a study with the intention of building romantic closeness between two people. This study was only performed once and never published, but the method it used would go on to change the course of several lives.
Aron’s research on closeness was pulled into the spotlight in 2015 when writer Mandy Len Catron took some of its methods for a spin – falling for her research partner in the process – and recorded her experience in an article for The New York Times, titled To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.
But anyone is a strong word, and though history is dotted with stories of unlikely love, studies show that in most cases, several obvious factors will likely exist before those feelings appear.
“First of all, it’s much more likely if the person’s the appropriate sex for you, the appropriate age, the appropriate social class, language,” says Aron. “They need to be sort of in the ballpark to start with.” Presuming that’s the case, he says, it’s important that the person be “reasonably attractive … not just physically attractive, personality-wise”.
That aside, the Intimacy study wasn’t actually concerned with creating love per se, but rather with determining “if the behaviour people use to accelerate emotional closeness or distance has to do with the simple ability to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’.”
How to create that closeness? One-and-a-half hours, 36 questions and three minutes of staring into a relative stranger’s eyes. “We looked at the literature and said, how do people spontaneously develop friendships,” explains Aron of the method. “And what they tended to find is that the typical ways that friendships develop is by sharing personal information with each other, back and forth, that gets increasingly closer, increasingly more personal. We just started playing around with different questions … and these were ones that seemed to work pretty well.”
The questions also incorporated two other important elements in the ignition of relationships. The first – contradicting the oft-cited dating theory that opposites attract – is that you see similarity between yourself and your partner, says Aron. And for those of us who’ve been playing hard to get, Aron has another reality check: “The other thing that plays a huge role is thinking the other person likes you,” he says. “There’s value in overcoming a challenge, but you might not bother. The research shows it’s good to play hard for everyone else to get, but easy for [the prospective partner] to get … So we have some items in there … after a little bit of other interaction [ask participants to] name something you like about the other person.”
Many of the questions in the Intimacy study continue to be used in more universal circumstances, in building closeness between potential friends – often of different racial groups or social background – and couples. But in order to create romantic closeness, the questions needed to be more “intense”, says Aron. Questions from “what would constitute the perfect evening for you?” and “what do you value most in a relationship?” to “if you wanted to look very sexy, how would you dress?”; instructions to “alternate sharing something you find attractive in your partner”, then, much later, to “pretend you are in a play with your partner … the director has asked you to tell your partner that you are interested in having more than just a casual relationship with them; that you are beginning to fall in love with them…”
And then came the eye contact – three minutes, in complete silence – an addition inspired by the research of pioneering social psychologist Zick Rubin, who found a correlation between the intensity of love shared by a couple and the amount of time they spent staring into each other’s eyes.
Given the high potential for tension, either uncomfortable or electric, Aron’s team were careful to take precautions. “We told people … if you’re already in a relationship with someone don’t do this study because we don’t want to create problems. We were careful to actually have them leave separately in that experiment, because we didn’t want to put people in awkward positions. We actually have no idea what happened to most.”
But there was an exception: two research assistants who worked in Aron’s lab, took part in the study and just happened to fall in love. “Because they were in our lab we knew. They told us, ‘Hey, we’re getting married. Do you want to come to the wedding?’ They’d been in different projects. They hadn’t really known each other before this. From that more intense procedure we did expect some romantic feelings but we didn’t know they’d be falling in love. That wasn’t really the goal.”
When Catron used the method and felt the same effects more than 20 years later, she concluded that the love that began on that night “may have happened anyway … We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”
And why make the choice to keep following those feelings, even when novelty becomes reality and the euphoria has abated? Well for one, love is good for our health. “The quality of relationships is a stronger predictor of how happy people are than anything else,” says Aron. “Having a good relationship as opposed to being alone is a bigger predictor of how long you’ll live than smoking or obesity.”
And, if you’re truly lucky in love, that falling, floating feeling can last, says Aron. “We found some couples who are married 20, 30 years that claimed to be very intensely in love and we interviewed them and they really seemed to be … We put them in the [brain] scanner and sure enough, they looked like the people who’d just fallen in love.”