It’s classic. That feeling. Red cheeks, sweaty palms, the sensation of your stomach flipping inside out. The inexplicable or very sensible attraction we feel for someone.
What even is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me) How does it happen? Is love a choice, a feeling or a distinctly human condition? As it turns out, there are scientists and researchers who spend their lives studying everything about love in order to answer these questions, researchers like Dawn Maslar and Helen Fisher.
Studying the magical phenomenon of being head-over-heels is not necessarily a tried and true way to set the mood, but it is an approach that could help us better identify what exactly goes on when we interact with our love interest.
To start, a number of physical processes are activated, triggered by the five senses. The eyes see someone and the brain assesses visual pleasure and – surprisingly – reproductive fitness. Certain characteristics, such as long, lustrous hair, signal fertility.
When the eyes (actually, the brain) finds something attractive, it wants the body to investigate it. Here is where the other senses come in.
The nose is able to detect pheromones, odorless substances that are believed to deliver information and trigger reactions from the receiving party. For women, ovulation is a time of especially significant message transmission, because it signals fertility.
The ears play a role in what makes us dub a person’s voice sexy or unappealing. Men tend to be attracted to high-pitched, breathy voices and women favor deep voices in their counterparts.
The sense of taste, however, appears to hold the most weight when assessing a love interest. The smell of another’s breath, the taste of their mouth and the quality of the first kiss is crucial in determining whether the relationship will continue or fizzle out.
In other words, a good first kiss kick-starts things while a bad one leaves little hope. Why? A number of chemical reactions happen during a pleasant kiss. For one, the body pumps norepinephrine—the chemical that elicits a fight or flight response—into the blood. It returns you to your bashful 13-year-old first kiss self or lets you rise to the occasion, but it can also create a sort of tunnel vision.
The heart beats more rapidly, pupils dilate and glucose is released into the body to provide additional energy. All for a kiss.
Aside from the physical connection, there are a number of factors that play into the growth of attraction into full-blown love. This gets a bit more complex, which is why shortcuts and how-to lists go viral.
In a Modern Love essay published in the New York Times about a year ago, writer Mandy Len Catron applied research by Arthur Aron to her dating life and recorded the results in “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” Aron’s research was based around the idea of 36 questions that gradually become more personal. Two strangers would sit in a laboratory and ask each other the questions, maintaining eye contact for 90 seconds at the end.
The study supported the importance of vulnerability and communication—eye-to-eye, face-to-face—when it comes to love. What made this study significant was that an impressive number of participants actually fell in love. And so did Catron, causing the piece to spread like wildfire across the four corners of the Internet.
Now she is working on a book about the dangers of love stories.