When You Feel "Chemistry" With Someone, What's Actually Going On?

iStock
iStock

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, tells Mental Floss. She is the founder of Liberos, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that works in collaboration with the University of Georgia and the University of Pittsburgh to study human sexual behavior and develop 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 Rutgers University, Match.com's science advisor, 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 seminal 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, 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, effecting 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 tells Mental Floss.

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 says 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, instigating lactation, and sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. 

Now they're focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin (no, really). 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 says there is a lot more 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 says. 

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, which promote 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 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 tells Mental Floss.

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. Now, more than three years later, they live together in a condo they bought.

The Arons' questions offer "accelerated intimacy," she says, 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 says. "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 says to keep this in mind: "The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER