Ah, the bittersweet agony of a crush. That awful mix of exhilaration and anxiety, boldness and insecurity, hope and fear, giddiness and embarrassment.
For some, a crush is a stimulating and enjoyable diversion – part of the spice of life – but for others it can be a prison of private anguish. In serious cases, it can escalate into the altered mental state of limerence, where an infatuation becomes a life-disrupting obsession, best understood as addiction to another person.
Regardless of the intensity of a crush, or the consequences once it’s taken hold, there is a mystery at the heart of the phenomenon that isn’t easily explained: why do we develop crushes? What causes a crush to begin, and why do we even have the capacity to experience so peculiar a state?
There are, in fact, several layers to this question.
1. How does infatuation begin?
The first layer to consider is the how of infatuation. Fortunately, there is a pretty solid answer to this question. Infatuation is a product of neurochemistry. The emotional tumult of an intense crush comes from the combination of dopamine-driven reward, noradrenaline-driven arousal, and hormonally-driven bonding. Those wonderful feelings of giddy highs when they smile at us, laugh at our jokes, show interest in us and seem to care? All driven by well-established neural systems that regulate mate-seeking behaviour.
What’s more, the neuroscience of limerence – when the infatuation turns into obsession – is also well grounded in the neurobiology of behavioural addiction.
So, the basic mechanics of infatuation are understandable, but it’s an incomplete answer. It’s rather like understanding how a combustion engine powers a car: helpful to know, but it doesn’t explain where you’re going.
2. Why are some people special?
We don’t develop a crush for every attractive person we meet. Some people are special. When it comes to limerence, I call this special sense of romantic potency “the glimmer” – the ineffable spark of glamourous energy that some people seem to radiate.
It isn’t so clear where this idiosyncratic connection comes from. Certainly, there is good psychological research that people have a romantic “type” that they are more likely to respond to, but the origins of these preferences are complex. There is evidence that it is partly genetics, partly sensory, partly due to formative experiences during various key stages of development. Mix in experiences with previous partners, the influence of celebrities and role models in adolescence, half-remembered stories from childhood, and you have a nicely blended romantic stew.
The best summary of this weird recipe is that your own personal history imprints a kind of romantic archetype in your subconscious that you recognise quickly if you meet someone who fits your personal template.
Those are the people that rev your neurochemical engine.
3. We tell ourselves stories
OK, so we have an inbuilt infatuation engine, and some people can turn it on. To inflame that glimmer into a crush, though, we need to respond to the initial excitement in a way that strengthens the attraction. A big part of that process is how we make sense of the feelings that we’re experiencing.
To return to the idea of archetypes, it is very tempting once we’ve found someone that matches our psychological template to slot them neatly into the story of our lives. Most of us make sense of the world through stories. It’s an incredibly efficient way of simplifying the complicated business of real life into an orderly framework that focuses on the Big Themes of existence.
The problem is that we are too good at this sort of pattern-recognition and story telling. It’s a mental shortcut that is useful for creating an emotionally satisfying narrative about the world, but it is often misleading.
Essentially, once we see someone as a potential match, the temptation to attribute all our hoped-for traits onto them is hard to resist. We idealise them, conjure a fantasy version of them from our own imaginations, and gleefully cast them in our own romantic drama. We project our hopes and expectations on them, gloss over the times they don’t quite hit their cues, and look ahead to our happy ever after.
All those wonderful feelings surely prove that they are The One?
4. We reinforce the reward
Once we have met someone potent, felt the neurochemical thrill they provoke, and cast them into the story of our own grand romance, it becomes somewhat inevitable that we reinforce the electrifying connection.
Unwittingly, just by following our natural instincts, we train ourselves into infatuation. Being with a crush is rewarding, and so we seek as much contact as we can. When we aren’t able to be with them, we spend hours in reverie, daydreaming about them. Countering those highs, the thought of them finding out how we are feeling in an uncontrolled way is terrifying. The stakes seem so high that we almost dare not act.
Many limerents exist in this state of tension, desperate for consummation, but sensing that our crush is so powerful and disproportionate that it scares us into paralysis.
This mix of reward-seeking and insecurity is a powerful mechanism of behavioural reinforcement. Just by running on instinct, we end up solidifying a habit of centring them in our minds, and turn attraction into obsession.
5. They can reinforce it too
A last factor in the full development of a life changing crush, is that the availability of the reward we seek isn’t entirely within our control. The behaviour of the person we have a crush on has a huge impact on the intensity and duration of infatuation.
Crushes tend to develop in cases where there is some uncertainty about the other person’s feelings or availability. Generally speaking, if it’s obvious that they are attracted to us too, or obvious that they definitely aren’t, then there’s no fertile ground for fantasy to bloom. If, in contrast, there are barriers or uncertainty about their feelings for you, then there is scope for the imagination to soar.
At the neurochemical level, uncertainty is the most powerful way to reinforce behaviour, because the reward systems can’t successfully predict the outcome of interactions. If you are attracted to someone who sends mixed messages and is sometimes open and flirtatious, but sometimes curt and dismissive, you’ll never know whether you’ll get a hit of romantic bliss or a sting of romantic rejection.
Instead of causing you to give up on them as a Bad Case, our brains are set up to keep seeking the pattern that will give a predictable reward. And that keeps you hooked.
How we respond to their behaviour can be another critical cause of reinforcement.
In summary, then, a crush develops because we recognise someone who matches our subconscious romantic archetype, triggers the reward-seeking circuitry of the brain, making us compose a love story around our hopes, and prompts us to reinforce and validate this dream.
Quite a ride.
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