Why and How Do We Develop Crushes? An Expert Tells All
Nearly all of us have had major crushes on someone at one time or another, but have you ever actually stopped to think about why you develop crushes in the first place?
We had questions, so we consulted an expert. Dr. Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist who's an authority on what happens in our brains during all things related to love and relationships. We asked her our most burning questions about the neuroscience behind crushes, and she delivered some great answers.
Sweety High: What's actually happens in our brains when we develop a crush?
Helen Fisher: In reality, a crush is basically romantic love. The same brain system and neural pathways are triggered. When you fall for somebody, you can call it infatuation, or a crush, or romantic love, but it all happens in the same part of the brain.
You usually only develop these feelings when somebody fits what I call your love map. As we live our lives, we build up this unconscious list of what we're looking for in a partner. When the time is right and you discover that someone fits your concept of what the right partner looks like for you, you're ready to be more susceptible to have your brain circuitry triggered for romantic love. Boom—you're off on your crush.
SH: What are the telltale signs of a new crush?
HF: This person takes on a special meaning to you. Suddenly, they're different from everyone else. You overlook the negative and focus on the positive things about this person. You may also have a tremendous amount of energy out of nowhere. You could walk all night or talk until dawn with them if you're lucky enough to find yourself in those situations. You feel elated when they send you a text and feel disappointed when they don't text you back or invite you out.
There are all kinds of physical responses. You can have wobbly knees, and dry mouth, and butterflies in your stomach when you run into them in the hall. Somebody is essentially camping in your head. You obsessively think about them. You might try to show up where they are, or go watch them if they play sports, or invite them to something you're doing with friends. You just want to be around them, and you can even become quite possessive of them.
These feelings can be very difficult to control. Maybe you can keep yourself from texting them, but you don't have control over the feelings. It's a little like hunger. You might be able to keep yourself from going to the freezer to grab an ice cream, but that hunger doesn't go away. It's a drive. This basic brain system evolved millions of years ago to focus your energy on one particular individual at a time.
SH: What's happening in our brain when we have a crush?
HF: When you have a crush on someone and are focusing on just that one person, the dopamine system in your brain has been activated. It all starts in a tiny little factory near the base of the brain. It's way below the regions that orchestrate most thinking and emotions. It's in the brain regions devoted to drive.
This little factory that makes dopamine, giving you that feeling of elation and giddiness and euphoria, lies right near the brain regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. They keep you alive, and that crush drives you to make a relationship. It's a basic brain system that evolved four million years ago.
But that dopamine rush is only going to happen as a reaction toward the right people. Your childhood and your experiences play a role. We tend to fall for people who are from the same socioeconomic background, our same general level of intelligence and good looks, same religious and social values, even social goals and economic goals.
When you're young, your love map hasn't been developing for very long. The girl who falls in love with the high school football star may end up years later falling in love with a mathematician, because she's a mathematician, too. Your love map is always developing as you get older. There are some things we no longer want, and there are other things that we hadn't thought we wanted and realize we suddenly really do want. Crushes can happen at any age.
SH: Do crushes differ at all between men and women?
HF: We all have that drive. Men and boys fall in love faster than women and girls. Boys don't only fall in love faster, but they fall in love more often. When they find someone they have a crush on, they want to introduce them to friends and family sooner and get a real relationship going. Maybe it's reassuring to know that it's not just girls having crushes. It's definitely boys, too.
SH: What's your advice for when thinking about a crush too much is starting to affect your life?
HF: You've got to distract yourself. You can't just tell yourself not to think about a person, because that's going to make you think about them even more. Go and do other things with other people that are fun, and interesting, and new. Pick up a hobby. Spend more time with your friends. Get some exercise. Pick up a new interest. You might also want to find out if the person likes back and see if it goes anywhere.
SH: Any other tips on dealing with crushes?
HF: I think it's very natural to have crushes. You should enjoy them, because they're practice for the big one down the road. There's nothing wrong with having a crush. They help in your growth, and they're good for your health. They also give you focus and motivation, because that's what dopamine does.
But don't ever forget that there's probably going to be another one down the road. Don't destroy yourself. Never give up school. Get your work done and don't be a fool about it. And definitely don't follow through on a crush if that person is already seeing someone. That's called poaching, and you shouldn't do it. If you know the person isn't interested, don't pursue it. You can still have whatever feelings you like, but you shouldn't do anything about those feelings. If that person doesn't want you, let them go.
Had enough of your crush? Click HERE for the Love Doctor's advise on how to uncrush.