23 August 2011
Chemistry: What makes us connect with somebody?
Chemistry is an elusive thing. You can chat online for weeks only to find that when you eventually meet up the atmosphere is as flat as a pancake. So, how does it work?
You may have been chatting online for weeks, have loads in common, be so excited to meet each other in person, have arranged the perfect first date but despite all this when you get there that magic spark just isn’t there, there is no chemistry between you. This can happen because of a number of real chemical reactions taking place in the body. Here we explain some of the science behind it.
On the first date
Your heart is beating fast, your breathing is shallow, your palms sweaty and it feels like butterflies are filling your stomach. You can’t tell whether it is fear or excitement that is overwhelming you but it’s all-consuming, obliterating all concerns about your ordinary life.
Whenever we go into any new situation our body prepares us by releasing a number of chemicals into our bloodstream. Adrenaline is a hormone which creates the ‘fight or flight’ response, it increases our heart rate, constricts blood vessels and dilates our air passages. Fight or flight might not seem like the most natural responses to a date but it describes well that feeling of being fully alert and on guard to respond to an unknown situation.
Combined with this is the release of endorphins into the brain. They are produced by the pituitary gland during periods of excitement or stress and resemble opiates in their ability to produce a natural pain relief and feelings of well being. They can also make us feel powerful, confident and filled with optimism.
Like an actor about to go on stage for the first performance a first date is a complete unknown so this is when we get the biggest rush of all of these chemicals. Actors often say that the first night is by far the best in terms of performance because they are in that heightened state, after that they will still have some rush but not to the same level as its no longer an unknown entity.
So you get there and you see your date for the first time and you hug. At this point another set of chemicals comes into play. There are called pheromones and they make us smell attractive to our partner. Pheromones are released naturally by the body and the level which you release will vary from person to person. The perfume industry has tried to cash in on this scientific fact for decades by producing perfumes that closely resemble human pheromones.
We also respond very strongly to the non-verbal messages given by our date. Researchers have noticed that when people are attracted to each other they tend to mirror one another’s body language, folding their arms at the same time, gesturing in the same way as though they are attuned to each other sometimes even speaking in unison, they may feel very familiar to each other.
The next stages
After a successful first date where you feel you have really connected you may be feeling the first fluttering of love. Some people swear they fell in love with their partner at first sight. There in a intoxicating mix of chemicals racing around in your brain and body when you start to fall in love. Estrogen and testosterone are the main players in the sex drive area. Without this initial exciting flush we might never get to the ‘real love’ stage.
That feelings we experience when we’re first falling in love can include a racing heart, flushed skin and sweaty palms. This is due to the heady mix of dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine that is being released in the body. Dopamine is often referred to as the pleasure chemical and produces a feeling of bliss. Norepinephrine produces a similar feeling to adrenaline and is the reason we get a racing heart and feelings of excitement. The overall effect of these chemicals can be sleeplessness, elation, craving, intense energy, loss of appetite and focused attention.
There has been a number of studies done using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch people’s brains when they look at a photograph of the person they are in love with. What they see in those scans during that totally smitten stage when you can hardly think of anything else but your beloved — the attraction stage — is actually a biological drive to focus on just one person. The scans also revealed increased blood flow in the areas of the brain which have high concentrations of receptors for dopamine, the areas associated with states of euphoria, craving and addiction.
Another possible explanation for the intense focus and idealizing view is that people in love have lower levels of serotonin and also that neural circuits associated with the way we assess others are suppressed. These lower serotonin levels are often found in people who suffer obsessive compulsive disorder which may explain why love can sometimes feel quite obsessive.
Making love last
All of these chemical responses lesson with time and it is possible to have strong chemical reaction to someone who is completely unsuitable and unavailable. Matches made on the grounds of compatibility are less likely to wane when the chemical reactions settle down and you will be left with a love that has the best possible chance of success.