“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” ― William Shakespeare. Although probably not as intense as Romeo and Juliet’s, most people will remember their own first love. What makes a first love so special?
Known as the greatest love story of all time, Romeo and Juliet is basically the story of passionate love between two adolescents. Although falling in love is always an intense experience, it appears to be even more intense for adolescents than for adults. Some people even keep longing for their first love and indicate that they would still want to get back together after many years.
Romantic love is associated with brain activation in reward-processing neural regions. Researchers showed people who were madly in love pictures of their beloved, and subsequently looked which brain areas were activated during the viewing of these photographs. They found that, compared to looking at photographs of a friend, viewing photographs of your loved one elicits activation in reward-processing regions in the brain. These areas are similar to those found active while people are under the influence of cocaine or other euphoria-inducing drugs.
Even though love is special at all ages, there appears to be something extra about your first love. The first experience of passionate love can be overwhelming and quickly turn into the most important thing in a teenager’s life. In modern times this is more likely to take the form of endless texting, rather than nocturnal serenades under the balcony.
Why a first love is so special is subject to debate. It has been suggested that the first time you fall in love some form of ‘imprinting’ takes place. Imprinting refers to a rapid learning process, only possible during a sensitive period, usually very early in life, in which newborns attach to members of their own species. Ducklings, for instance, will imprint on the first large moving object they encounter after they hatch. According to the ‘imprinting theory’, adolescence is a sensitive period for romantic relationships, and experiences during this period will be imprinted for life.
However, there are several problems with this theory. If imprinting did take place, this would be a biological mechanism and therefore apply to everyone. Thus, everyone would have vivid memories of their first love, which is not the case.
A more plausible explanation could be that the first time you fall in love you simply have never experienced anything like it before, and therefore the love feels so intense. When falling in love for the second or third time, these feelings are more familiar and may therefore be easier to regulate, resulting in a less overwhelming experience. The story of Romeo and Juliet may have had a whole different ending if they had met a couple of years later.