Love at first sight, a philosophical analysis

[Photo by luizclas from Pexels]

(Below is an interview I did recently with the French magazine Dim Dam Dom. Since it won’t appear in English, I figured my readers might be interested. I’m scheduling this post for the day after the US elections. Because — regardless of the outcome — we probably all need to think about something else.)

How does philosophy explain love at first sight? Who were the main philosophers who tackled this subject? And what were their different point of interests in this phenomenon?

Philosophy isn’t really in the business of explaining facts about the world, such as how and why people fall in love — whether at first sight or not. We’ve got science for that, as I’ll explain in a minute. Philosophy, by contrast, is in the business of providing accounts of human phenomena to aid our understanding of such phenomena. These accounts are informed by science, but go beyond it because we wish to extract meaning from what we do. Moreover, philosophy uses a prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) approach to things: it doesn’t ask just what people do, but whether they should do it. That, specifically, is the province of that branch of philosophy known as ethics.

From a scientific perspective, the work of cognitive scientist Helen Fisher has illuminated the various aspects of human love using neurobiology, including love at first sight, lust, romantic love, and more mature love. Fisher identified three different phases of falling in love, connected to partially overlapping neural mechanisms. A combination of androgens and estrogens kicks in when we experience lust for someone, and one of their side effects is to cloud our judgment with regard to that person, at least temporarily. Should the initial lust lead to more complex feelings of romance, then the brain shifts to a production of catecholamines, chemicals that allow us to focus our attention exclusively on our chosen partner, inducing a feeling that the other person is special. If the romance evolves further into a deeper relationship, the release of oxytocin and vasopressin triggers in us the experience of a more calm and secure type of bonding with the other person.

Fisher’s research really gives a deeper meaning to the phrase “chemical attraction,” but we need to remember that the biochemical changes I described are just as much consequences as causes of the process of falling in love. We don’t fall in love just because certain hormones kick in. Rather, the hormones kick in because we met someone we find attractive, and that attraction is then reinforced by the biochemicals, and so on.

Seen this way, love at first sight is just a particular version of the lust > romance > attachment sequence, one in which people move from the first to the second phase almost instantly.

How did philosophy contribute to our current perception of love at first sight?

Philosophers have been talking about love from near the beginnings of the western tradition, for instance with Plato. His Symposium even features a love lesson by none other than Socrates! Socrates says that eros, one of several forms of love recognized by the ancient Greeks, is often initially directed toward a particular person, the object of our love. But when it matures its focus broadens, so that we love not just, say, the physical beauty of a particular person, but more abstract levels of beauty, and eventually beauty in general.

This has practical consequences, because it means that — if we are mature enough — we will eventually appreciate different aspects of the “beauty” of our partner. Not simply his or her physical appearance (which, after all, will be inevitably diminished by the passage of time), but their beauty as a person, including their personality, their inner strength, their sense of humor, their capacity for affection, their loyalty to us, and so forth.

A much more recent philosopher, Robert Nozick, has said that the creation of a couple essentially brings into existence a third entity, a “We” that would not exist if the two individuals had not come together. “We” has distinctive characteristics, which derive from the unique interactions between the two members of the couple, and which develop over time as a result of the accumulation of shared experiences and then memories. This has a major consequence: that it does not make sense to try to “trade-up,” so to speak, looking to replace a partner with a better model, as you would with a car, or a smartphone. The reason for that is that “We’s” are unique, and when we break them to form a new one something is irreparably lost. This is a philosophical way to say that you should not treat your partner as an object that can easily be replaced. It doesn’t mean that one has to stay in a relationship that is not working, just that the decision to “kill” (as Nozick puts it) a “We” needs to be considered very carefully.

Philosophers have not just talked about love, they have also embodied it in their lives. Let me give you two examples. The first one concerns the ancient Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes and his wife, Hipparchia of Maroneia. The Cynics were kind of itinerant monks, who owned no property, had no house, and usually had no children. Their goal in life was to live virtuously and remind others that things like wealth and fame are irrelevant to happiness. When Hipparchia fell madly in love with Crates, her parents begged him to dissuade her. He stood in front of Hipparchia, removed his clothes and said: “Here is the bridegroom, and this is his property.” It didn’t work. Hipparchia married him anyway, and they apparently had a happy life together, roaming the streets of Athens.

A more modern example is that of the famous French couple, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their relationship began when they were very young, developed in a highly unconventional way (they both had other lovers on and off), but stayed true until the end. They are buried next to each other at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

What would be your personal definition? 

My personal definition of love at first sight is that it is a kind of madness. We lose control of our reasoning faculties and wholeheartedly embark into an exciting but potentially perilous adventure. I would not advice it, frankly. As the second century philosopher Epictetus said, we should carefully consider our first impressions (of people, things, and events) and rather than “just do it,” as the famous commercial says, pause and think about whether it really is a good idea to do it.

Look, if the person you feel you have instantly fallen in love with is really the right one for you, great, no harm will be done by slowing things a bit so that you can actually get to know them a little more. Chances are that what you call “love at first sight” is a combination of physical lust and being impressed by some quirk of the personality of the other. The likelihood that this sort of premises will actually bring something deep and lasting are pretty slim, Hollywood romantic comedies aside.

What would be the difference between love at first sight and a romantic encounter?

Not much, except, of course, the speed at which events unfold. I think “love at first sight” is a type of romantic encounter, where things develop unusually fast, and where people feel that same sort of awe and confidence about the other person that is generated over weeks or months of a normal romance.

Research conducted by Dick Barelds and collaborators and published in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships found that people who fall in love at first sight end up with a partner who is less similar to them in terms of level of extraversion, emotional stability, and autonomy, among other personality traits. While those subjects did not report a lower quality of their relationship compared to people who had gone through a more normal romance phase, it turns out that similarity in personality traits is related to the quality of the relationship, in the long run.

What is at stake during love at first sight?

The possibility of making a big mistake. If you fall head over heels for a person you know nothing about you are more likely to find yourself in a situation that you are not going to like further down the road. Sure, you may get lucky. But there is very little to gain in rushing things, and potentially a lot to lose. 

Sometimes in life we do need to make quick decisions on the spot, because we don’t have an alternative. In situations of sudden danger, for instance, we have to make up our mind quickly about whether we run for cover or stay and fight. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this “fast thinking.” It is necessary for our survival. But evolution has also endowed us with a second neural system, which Kahneman describes as “slow thinking.” It takes more time to make a decision that way, but it also means that we have more leisure to examine things up close and deliberate accordingly. Slow thinking saves us a lot of trouble later on.

What kind of role does it play in our human being’s experience of life?

Love at first sight is one of a myriad ways in which we experience relationships. It literally provides us with a rush of pleasurable chemicals in the brain, and it can be an exhilarating thing to happen to us. But I don’t think it is necessarily the best way to fall in love, nor is it the result of some kind of magical or supernatural intervention by the universe to clearly point out to us the one.

In fact, there is no such thing as the one, a strange concept that can be traced back to Plato’s Symposium. There are countless people with whom we could fall in love (and countless more with whom we couldn’t). And it is largely a matter of happenstance who we meet and whether we are ready for love when we meet them. As Australian comedian Tim Minchin puts it:

Your love is one in a million
You couldn’t buy it at any price
But of the nine-point-nine-nine-nine-hundred-thousand other possible loves
Statistically, some of them would be equally nice

He dedicated the song to his wife, by the way, the love of his life.

Is love at first sight completely spontaneous or is it possible to cause it?

It can be caused. At least, in prairie voles and mice! Researchers have discovered that oxytocin and vasopressin, two of the chemicals that mediate attachment to a partner in human beings, act in the same way in other mammals, like prairie voles. They have also identified a particular gene that produces a molecule that binds vasopressin. Now, prairie voles are naturally monogamous, while laboratory mice are not. However, if we transfer the gene coding for the vasopressin receptor from prairie voles to mice, and then inject the mice with vasopressin, the previously not exactly affectionate mice display clearly affectionate behavior toward whatever potential partner happens to be around.

This doesn’t mean that things are that simple for human beings, since we have far more complex brains, behavioral patterns, and especially societal pressures and expectations than either prairie voles or mice. Scientists are not about to develop a vasopressin-based love potion any time soon. Nevertheless, we really need to stop thinking of ourselves as exceptions in the animal world. We are animals, and we behave accordingly.

What kind of role does love at first sight play in the will of achieving happiness?

That’s a wonderful question, but we should start by first looking more carefully into what we mean by “happiness.” It is a notoriously slippery word, which may indicate anything from the good feeling I experience knowing that tonight I’ll have salmon for dinner to the contentment I have about my life when I think about it from a broad perspective.

Moreover, there are other ways of looking at what is good for human beings in the long run. Perhaps happiness is not sustainable, but flourishing — the ability to pursuit and achieve our own chosen goals — is achievable. Maybe people shouldn’t care so much about happiness, however defined, and focus more on having a meaningful life, one that is built on deep relationships with others, as well as on projects that are not trivial but worth pursuing precisely because meaningful.

What role does love at first sight play in all this? It depends. It may very well be, if we are lucky, our vehicle to a fulfilling relationship that develops into a life-long commitment to another human being. Or it may be a mistake that gets in the way of our long term flourishing, ending up in frustration and disappointment.

That is precisely why we should all engage in a bit of philosophical reflection, from time to time. Perhaps Socrates exaggerated when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But a little examination here and there will make it more likely that we are actually going where we want to go, not where chance and hormones happen to strand us.

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