Love at First Sight

In Plato’s Symposium, the Greek playwright Aristophanes recounted a fascinating legend. According to the tale, when human beings were first created, they were comical roly-poly creatures with two faces, four arms, and four legs. The gods then split them in two. Therefore, claimed the playwright, we spend our lives desperately searching for the matching half that we need to complete us.

Are we then somehow cosmically programmed to seek our "other half", a half that is our mirror image? Are we somehow, despite the dictum that "opposites attract", subconsciously drawn to people who resemble us?

The Face in the Water


The ancient Greeks provided an answer of sorts in the myth of Narcissus. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Narcissus was an extraordinarily handsome but self-centered young man who spurned all his lovers. Finally, one of them cursed him by praying that someday Narcissus should himself feel the pain of unrequited love. One day while walking through the woods, Narcissus came upon a pond and gazed into its waters. As he did so, he saw the face of a handsome young man looking up at him. Desiring to embrace the beautiful youth, Narcissus dipped his hands into the water but, as he did, the image broke up. Each time he drew closer to the surface of the water, the object of his love seemed to draw closer to him but, each time he reached into its waters, the image again disappeared. Frustrated in his self-love, a despondent Narcissus continued to sit by the edge of the pond until he finally withered away and died. Even in death, Ovid tells us, Narcissus continued to gaze at his own image in the waters of the river Styx.

The myth of Narcissus is the origin of the term  narcissism, and teaches us the mesmerizing power of self-love, a power that can – if we are not vigilant – consume and destroy us. To be mindlessly attracted to a replica of the familiar face in our mirror may, in fact, be a prescription for a broken heart.

The Birds and the Bees


In fact, it may not be the face we see in our mirror, our own face, that guides us in the choice of a mate. The face that functions as our erotic template may in fact be one we saw long before we ever knew what a mirror was.

The observations of British naturalist Spalding (1873) and German zoologist Heinroth (1910) paved the way for research onimprinting in chicks and goslings. When goslings were hatched in an incubator (and were thereby prevented from seeing their actual mothers), they instead became attached to the first human beings they saw, and responded to them as though the people were their parents. Heinroth concluded that the first image the goslings saw somehow became stamped or "imprinted" on their impressionable young brains.

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