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Over the course of a lifetime, most of us see sparks with more than one other person. But you only have one first love. They’re usually the person you share many other “firsts” with, whether that’s a first kiss, a first date, or a first intimate encounter. And no matter if you end up marrying them or not, it’s safe to say they’re very, very difficult to forget.
“Your first love is a new experience in your life,” says Adina Mahalli, MSW, a certified relationship expert at Maple Holistics. “This is one of the reasons you never forget it.”
According to Mahalli, the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for new memories, learning, and emotions, “has the ability to detect the rareness or novelty of an experience or image.” And research has shown that “new information stands out among other familiar information.”
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Psychologists refer to this as “primacy effect,” a concept that you’re more likely to remember your “firsts” than your “seconds,” “thirds,” and so on. That’s why your first international trip stands out more than your fifth, why your first day at a new job resonates more than your twentieth, and why your first love is so hard to shake, too.
A pivotal 2004 study published in the journal Neuron proved that important emotional memories in particular, like the thrill of a first love, engage different parts of the brain than the average memories of every day life. Through brain scans, researchers were able to see that these emotional memories evoked activity in the amygdala and various medial temporal lobe structures involved in memory processing, the hippocampus included.
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However, it’s not just the novelty or the emotions attached to that first love that leave it forever etched in your brain. It can also be the heartbreak that follows.
“Unfortunately, your first love often comes with a powerful feeling of your first experience of heartbreak,” says Beverly Friedmann, who has a background in behavioral psychology. “This may mean we always have a special place in our heart for our first love and remember the pain that came with the separation.”
Related Slideshow: Movies that celebrate first love (Provided by Photo Services)
Like Crazy (2011)
Starring Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones and Jennifer Lawrence, this film is about what happens when a British exchange student falls in love with an American student, only for the two to be separated when she is denied re-entry into the U.S. for violating her student visa terms.
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The Notebook (2004)
A war romance film which stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as a young couple who fall in love in the 1940s. However, problems arise due to the fact that they are from different classes and backgrounds.
Love Story (1970)
Written by Erich Segal, who is also the author of the best-selling novel of the same name, “Love Story” is considered to be one of the most romantic films ever. A tearjerker starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, it is about a young couple from different backgrounds who fall in love before tragedy strikes.
This film is a coming-of-age comedy-drama about the relationship between two teenage students who have their own particular set of family problems to deal with.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Based on the world-renowned play of the same name by William Shakespeare, this Franco Zeffirelli film sees Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey play the lead roles of lovers who are from two feuding families.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
A fantasy drama directed by David Fincher, it is about a man (Brad Pitt) who ages in reverse and how the relationship with his love interest (Cate Blanchett) progresses through the years.
Jack & Diane (2012)
A romantic horror film about two teenage girls who fall in love, but all of that goes haywire when one of them starts slowly transforming into a monster.
Say Anything... (1989)
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe and starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, the film is about the romance between an average student (played by Cusack) and a valedictorian (Skye) immediately after their graduation from high school.
Paper Heart (2009)
A romantic comedy starring Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera as fictionalized versions of themselves, this movie is shot in the form of a documentary about love.
Harold and Maude (1971)
This dark comedy revolves around a young man who is intrigued with death but eventually falls in love with a septuagenarian woman who teaches him to live life to the hilt.
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A musical romantic comedy about two lovers in a 1950s high school, this iconic movie stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the lead roles.
An Education (2009)
Based on a memoir of the same name by British journalist Lynn Barber, this coming-of-age drama is about a teenage girl and the relationship she has with a charming con man who is much older than her.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in the lead roles, “Dirty Dancing” is about the romance between a young woman from an affluent family and a dance instructor at a summer camp. Apart from the well-knit storyline, this movie is also famous for its spectacular choreography and great soundtrack.
My Girl (1991)
Set in 1972, this film is about two pre-teens, played by Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin, and their experiences with first love and loss.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
A romantic comedy-drama set in an American high school in the 1980s, the film is about a working-class girl who has to choose between a sensitive schoolmate from an affluent family and her doting childhood sweetheart. The movie's soundtrack is superb and has been rated as one of the best in modern cinema.
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The Graduate (1967)
A critically acclaimed film starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross, and directed by Mike Nichols, it tells the story of a disillusioned college graduate who is seduced by an older woman but ends up falling in love with her daughter.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
This Lars von Trier masterpiece, starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, is about a young woman and the love she has for her husband. However, things become complicated when her husband is paralyzed in an accident and subsequently urges her to have sex with other men since he can’t provide the sexual gratification that she needs.
My Summer of Love (2004)
A British drama based on the novel of the same name by Helen Cross, it explores the lesbian relationship between two young women from different classes and backgrounds.
True Romance (1993)
Directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, this action-packed dark comedy stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a couple on the run from the mob.
Endless Love (1981)
Based on a novel by Scott Spencer, this romantic drama directed by Franco Zeffirelli tells the story of the doomed romance between 17-year-old David Axelrod (played by Martin Hewitt) and 15-year-old Jade Butterfield (Brooke Shields).
Summer of '42 (1971)
This coming-of-age drama tells the story of how a boy in his early teens falls in love with a young woman whose husband has gone off to fight in World War II.
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It’s true. Like novel or emotional memories, negative events are also remembered in greater detail than positive ones, according to a 2007 study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science
. So the painful experience of a first heartbreak may stick around for longer than you’d like.
And thanks to the advent of social media, it’s becoming that much harder to forget your first love. A 2016 study published in the journal Memory revealed that posting your personal experiences online—like a photo from your first anniversary, or a sappy quote after your first love breaks your heart—can make certain events much easier to recall.
“The process of writing about one’s experiences in the public sphere, often sustained by subsequent social feedback, may allow people to reflect on the experiences and their personal relevance,” Qi Wang, lead study author, said in a statement. “Memory is often selective.”
So, the next time you find yourself daydreaming about your high school boyfriend or girlfriend, don’t read too much into it. Your first love may have a special place in your brain, but it doesn’t always have to have a special place in your heart, too.
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