UW Medicine: ‘First impressions are crucial’ in love this Valentine’s Day

Feb 14, 2023, 11:43 AM


Pasadena, CA - January 03: Lucy Girling, left, and Elliot Rosenberg, visitors in love from Toronto, take a selfie in front of Kaiser Permanente Rose Parade Float displayed along E. Washington Blvd. on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023 in Pasadena, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Heart aflutter? Can’t get that special someone out of your head? Could it be love, or is it just a chemical cocktail of dopamine and serotonin flooding your brain?

According to scientists from the University of Washington, while the heart gets all the attention for Valentine’s Day, the brain is the real culprit behind your butterflies.

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“Love is the result of chemical changes in the brain when we meet someone and feel that connection,” UW Medicine neuroscientist Larry Zweifel said. “There are long-term changes in our brain when we connect with someone that links us to those individuals, sometimes for life. I think that’s tremendously fascinating.”

Zweifel is a professor of pharmacology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Two people ‘fall in love’ and get engaged within months, but really they’re just feeling the chemical oxytocin, UW Medicine explained.

“In terms of establishing desire, chemically speaking, first impressions are crucial,” Zweifel said. “It’s how the brain processes those initial responses and that social feedback that determines whether or not we’ll engage with another individual again in the future, or whether we will do our best to avoid them.”

If people see someone they like, their brain floods with serotonin, and if things keep going well, the brain will continue producing that chemical, he explained. Mixed with physical touch, which can bring oxytocin to the brain, people can become attached and form bonds.

Zweifel explained that a lack of those chemicals might leave someone feeling sad on Valentine’s Day. Chemicals can also show why people impulsively love and fight.

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“People can be filled with a sense of dread as that date approaches, and there are many reasons why someone might feel averse to the thought,” Zweifel said. “Holidays that come with high expectations can be a major source of stress.”

This is not to discount the real emotional connections that people establish with each other, though, Zweifel says, but instead helps to explain the intoxicating quality that early romances tend to have.

“Love at first sight may seem like love, but it’s really just the initial surge of neurotransmitters and hormones that were driving it. It takes time to form that real connection,” Zweifel said.

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UW Medicine: ‘First impressions are crucial’ in love this Valentine’s Day