What Is Romantic Chemistry?

5 min read

Dating sites often promise to help people meet others with good chemistry, although they never say what chemistry is. Good chemistry is the experience of feeling an intense connection with a potential partner, but how does it work?

The mystery of chemistry has been markedly reduced by an account provided by three psychologists: Harry Reis, Annie Regan, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. They describe chemistry as an emergent property resulting from the interaction of perceptual, emotional, and behavioral components.

They write of chemistry as an experience but do not tie their account to a theory of consciousness. I fill this gap by tying their analysis of chemistry to what I think are the four main brain mechanisms of conscious experience: neural representation, binding, coherence, and competition.


Consider two people, Pat and Sam, on a first date. Each one’s perceptual experiences of the other include visual appearance, voice sounds, and possibly touch if they hug or shake hands. Smell may also contribute to first impressions through perfume, cologne, soap, or body odor.

Pat’s brain is representing Sam and vice versa, but visual appearance alone is just the beginning of chemistry that requires mutual coordination. The major way in which visual coordination can occur is through smiling at each other, although nodding and other positive gestures can help. Body language can be synchronized through Pat and Sam leaning toward each other or casually touching.

By far the greatest contributor to romantic chemistry is conversation, which requires Pat and Sam to form auditory representations of each other’s utterances. People form better social connections in conversation when they respond to each other quickly. If Pat and Sam experience lags in their conversation, they are likely to feel a lack of chemistry and infer that they are not very interested in each other.

Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky emphasize that chemistry is often embodied, with nonverbal communication that includes eye contact, mimicry of facial and bodily expressions, and synchronous movements like dancing. Other bodily sensations may include erogenous tingles and butterflies in the stomach that indicate nervous interest.

Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky recognize a large affective component of chemistry. The emotional reactions of Pat and Sam depend on how their brains represent situations including their meeting, the engagement of their conversation, the bodily changes they undergo, and their conscious or unconscious judgments about how well their interaction is satisfying their respective goals such as finding love or sex. Reactions may vary in intensity from mild interest to mutual excitement, with body language conveying the extent of emotional synchronization.

Other positive, shared emotions that may increase the connection include mirth if they make each other laugh, and lust if sexual attraction starts to build. Pat and Sam may also have abstract neural representations of each other, such as viewing each other as intelligent and having similar ethical and political values.

As Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky insist, chemistry is not any one of these effects of perceptual representation, internal sensation, emotion, and abstract thought. Rather, their interactions together have the emergent property of the mutual sense of connection that amounts to chemistry.


Pat and Sam’s perceptual, emotional, and abstract conceptualizations of each other require bindings of neural representations into new ones. Fleeting bindings such as Pat noticing that Sam has black hair can be done by synchronization of neural representations, with neural groups for black and hair firing in harmony. But more permanent inferences such as Sam seeing Pat as agreeable are more likely to require neural binding to produce new, enduring representations.

Chemistry does not happen all at once but depends on how the interaction develops. Initial awkwardness may be overcome by increasing amounts of mutual fun and interest. A good first meeting will leave Pat and Sam with pleasant memories of their interactions, which are organized roughly by the order of the events. This ordering depends on each of their brains being capable of binding that links the events to memories that make sense of how the interaction proceeds.


Through their interactions, Pat and Sam are hoping to make sense of each other by forming a coherent interpretation of what the other believes, wants, and values. Coherence can easily fail—for example, if Pat professes dedication to equality but makes racist comments.

More interactively, Pat and Sam may come to discover coherence in their common views if they realize they have similar goals, plans, and values. Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky do not use the term “coherence,” but they describe how chemistry can arise from shared identities and matching personal goals. The chemistry that may develop between Pat and Sam is much more than their physical attraction to each other because conversation also reveals if they are a good fit for each other with respect to religion, career plans, lifestyle, and geographical preferences.


Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky describe how shared attention is crucial for the interactional synchrony that contributes to the feeling of chemistry. If Pat is constantly checking her phone, then Sam will naturally infer a lack of interest in their relationship.

Attention results from competition between neural representations. Pat and Sam will thrive if they are much more interested in each other than in the many distractions in their lives. Competition is largely shaped by emotions—in this case, Pat and Sam finding each other sufficiently interesting, exciting, fun, and sexy to focus their attention.

Both conceptual and embodied factors can contribute to their feelings that the conversational moment deserves more consciousness than their surroundings or other concerns. Neural competition determines whether dating couples are consciously aware of each other and convey the degree of mutual interest required to move forward with a relationship.

Reis, Regan, and Lyubomirsky describe chemistry as arising from the interaction of cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes. Compatibly, I have described the conscious experience of chemistry as requiring the interactions of neural firings, inferences that make coherent sense of interactions, and emotional responses that marshal attention to outcompete distractions.

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