We know chemistry when we feel it with another person, but we don’t always know why we’re drawn to one person over another. Is it just a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones conspiring to rush you toward reproduction? Is it attraction borne of a set of shared values? Or is it bonding over specific experiences that create intimacy?
It’s probably a combination of all three, plus ineffable qualities that even matchmaking services can’t perfectly nail down.
“Scientists now assume, with very few exceptions, that any behavior has features of both genetics and history. It’s nature and nurture,” Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, told Mental Floss in 2018. She is the founder of Liberos LLC, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that studies human sexual behavior and develops sexuality-related biotechnology.
Scientists who study attraction take into consideration everything from genetics, psychology, and family history to traumas, which have been shown to impact a person’s ability to bond or feel desire.
The (Brain) Chemistry of Love
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, breaks down “love” into three distinct stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. In each stage, your body chemistry behaves differently. It turns out that “chemistry” is, at least in part, actual chemistry. Biochemistry, specifically.
In the lust and attraction phases, your body is directing the show, as people can feel desire without knowing anything personal about the object of that desire. Lust, Fisher asserts in a notable 1997 paper [PDF], is nothing more than the existence of a sex drive, or “the craving for sexual gratification,” she writes. It’s a sensation driven by estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, and based in the biological drive to reproduce.
Attraction may be influenced less than lust by physiological factors—the appeal of someone’s features, or the way they make you laugh—but your body is still calling the shots at this stage, pumping you full of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, affecting your brain in a way that’s not unlike the way illicit substances do.
Fisher has collaborated multiple times on the science of attraction with social psychologist Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Aron and his wife Elaine, who is also a psychologist, are known for studying what makes relationships begin—and last.
In a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers proposed that “romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today.”
In the attraction phase, your body produces increased amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is also responsible for pain relief. Using fMRI brain imaging, Aron’s studies have shown that “if you’re thinking about a person you’re intensely in love with, your brain activates the dopamine reward system, which is the same system that responds to cocaine,” he told Mental Floss in 2018.
Earlier, Fisher’s 1997 paper found that new couples often show “increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship.”
The attachment phase is characterized by increases in oxytocin and vasopressin; these hormones are thought to promote bonding and positive social behaviors to sustain connections over time in order to fulfill parental duties.
There is no hard and fast timeline for how long each phase lasts, as it can vary widely due to gender, age, and other environmental factors, Fisher writes.
Additionally, while oxytocin has long gotten the credit for being the love hormone, Prause said that scientists are now “kind of over oxytocin,” because it has broader functions than simply bonding. It also plays a role in the contraction of the uterus to stimulate birth, instigate lactation, and trigger sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism-spectrum disorders.
Now, they’re focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin. Produced in the hypothalamus, kisspeptin plays a role in the onset of puberty, and may increase libido, regulate the gonadal steroids that fuel the sex drive, and help the body maintain pregnancy. But Prause said there is a lot more to study about the role kisspeptin plays in attraction.
Chemical and Personal Bonds
Biology may explain our initial attraction and the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why a person’s love of obscure movies or joy of hiking tickles your fancy, or what makes you want to settle down.
The Arons’ numerous studies on this subject have found connection boils down to something quite simple: “What makes people attracted to the point of falling in love—presuming the person is reasonably appropriate for them—is that they feel the other person likes them,” he said.
In the process of doing research for her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone, writer Mandy Len Catron of Vancouver became her own test subject when she came across the research the Arons are most well-known for: their 36 questions method, which promotes bonding.
The questions were originally designed to “generate intimacy, a sense of feeling similar, and the sense that the other person likes you,” Aron explains. Romantic love wasn’t the goal. “It was a way of creating closeness between strangers.”
The Arons first tested their questions by pairing up students during a regular class section of a large psychology course, as they related in a 2016 paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Some students were paired with someone of the same sex, while others were matched with someone of the opposite sex. Each partner then answered a series of 36 increasingly personal questions, which took about 45 minutes each. (Question 2: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” Question 35: “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”) Small talk during class hadn’t made them bond, but the questions made the students feel closer.
In another version of the study, heterosexual, opposite-sex pairs follow the 36-question session with four minutes of staring deeply into each other’s eyes.
Catron decided to test these methods out with a casual acquaintance, Mark, over beers at a local bar one night. They were both dating other people at the time, and no one exclusively. As she answered the questions and listened to Mark’s answers, “I felt totally absorbed by the conversation in a way that was unlike any of the other first dates I was having at the time with people I met online,” Catron told Mental Floss in 2018.
She was ready to skip the four minutes of soulful eye gazing, but Mark thought they should try it. “It was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also an important part of the experience,” she recalls. “It’s so intimate, it requires you to let your guard down.”
The process instilled in Catron a deep feeling of trust in Mark and a desire to know him better. Within three months, they began dating in earnest. More than three years later, they were living together in a condo they bought.
The Arons’ questions offer “accelerated intimacy,” she said, in a time of increasingly online-driven dating experiences.
A Little Mystery, a Lot of Shared Values
Despite all that we’ve learned, scientists may only ever be able to brush up against the edge of a true understanding of “chemistry.” “We understand a fair amount about what happens when [attraction has] already occurred, but we’re really bad at predicting when it will happen,” Prause said. “People who try to claim magical matchmaking, or that they’re going to somehow chemically manipulate an aphrodisiac or something—well good luck! Because we can’t figure it out.”
And anyway, what’s romance without a little mystery?
If you must have a definitive answer to the puzzle of interpersonal chemistry, Prause said to keep this in mind: “The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values.”
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.