Do you believe in love at first sight? Studies suggest that two out of every three Americans do. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what is it about those first glances that stir the hearts of so many?
While love is a many-splendored thing, it’s also very subjective and notoriously hard to study scientifically. A poll of married couples, though, will undoubtedly reveal many stories of people who fell in love with their spouses from the moment they first laid eyes on them.
Animals, on the other hand, make easier subjects of scientific study and offer some interesting insight into the issues of attraction and attachment.
In the early 1900s, a German zoologist named Oskar Heinroth observed that when young geese were hatched in an incubator and could not see their actual mothers, they instead would become attached to the first human beings they saw. The goslings would act like the people were their parents!
Heinroth believed that the first sight the goslings saw somehow became stamped or “imprinted” on their young brains. Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz carried on Heinroth’s pioneering studies of imprinting by closely observing ground-nesting birds, such as ducks and geese.
Lorenz believed that imprinting occurred quickly during a very brief period of time and was irreversible. Lorenz’s observations confirmed what Heinroth had seen.
Kept apart from their mothers, little ducklings would “adopt” as their parent the first thing they saw: human beings or even inanimate objects, such as cardboard boxes, balloons or balls.
Lorenz’s basic theory of imprinting is well-documented. More recent studies, however, have shown that imprinting may be reversible and not restricted to a critical period. Researchers have also discovered that imprinting occurs in other species, such as insects, fish and some mammals.
Young ducks or geese that imprint on a human being will follow as a group wherever their “parent” leads. In 1993, Canadian Bill Lishman impressively demonstrated this phenomenon when he helped forgetful geese migrate 400 miles from Ontario to Virginia by training them to follow his ultralight airplane.
Lishman used imprinting to teach the geese to follow his ultralight airplane, becoming the first human being ever to fly in formation with birds! His heartwarming story can be found in his autobiography, as well as the 1996 family film “Fly Away Home.”