Must Be Love on the Brain: The Chemistry of Crushes

Looking into my crush’s cinnamon brown eyes, I suddenly realized he had asked me a question, a question which I had not heard because I was so engrossed in the symmetry of his face.

I had two options here: I could either assume the identity of a rational human being and ask him to repeat himself OR I could attempt to outrun the blush heading north from the base of my neck and just say any answer that came to mind. Caught in the eye of a dopamine tornado, I chose the later option hoping that my crush had asked what was holding up the salad line. He had not and what started as just an awkward silence quickly turned into a confused awkward silence broken up occasionally by a lunch order.

I wish I could tell you this was an isolated incident. That outside of this one crush on a California boy, who at the time had been assigned the desk next to me, I was the Lady Casanova of crushes, just collecting heart eye emojis with my continuous talk of consent and graphic novels. But the truth is, I don’t crush crushes, crushes crush me.

I still remember my first crush: Justin Fishman, kindergarten. Everyday I would attempt to sneak closer to his assigned seat on the show-and-tell rug only to be deterred by the exasperated questioning of my teacher. I learned quickly that a Fishman and a Lanning would never work due to the long distance imposed by an alphabetic roll call. 

Later there was Sammy Maxwell, the boy who asked me to the sixth grade dance. There was Aaron Lee, the red headed boy with the bright blue shoes, and Richie the tuba player who I wrote love letters to in high school. There was my freshman dorm mate who’d never been kissed, the writer-turned-gamer in my English seminar with surprisingly broad shoulders, and the friend-of-a-friend obsessed with Groupon. There was the guy whose voice sounded similar to Snuggles the Bear and the former rugby player; the musician who after our first date I blurted out, “Can I put my face on your face?” and later, the coworker who looked like Daniel Dae Kim — to name just a few. 

Over the years, my crushes have been diverse in their interests and backgrounds, but unified in their effect, turning me from a semi-stable human being into a puddle of goo. Even at 29, with two IRA accounts and numerous long term relationships under my belt, I still find myself barely more equipped to handle a crush than my braces-clad 7th grade self. 

When a crush hits, suddenly I don’t know what to do with my hands and find myself saying random phrases I’ve never uttered before. My subway commute becomes consumed with fantasizing about our future camping trips and when this crush appears in person, just forget about it because the sudden clammy hands stop for no one. This year as I embarked on another year of dating, I couldn’t help but wonder if crushes would always feel so out of my control or if someday I’d have the upper hand? So I did some digging.

As biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher discovered, crushes are actually a very regulated release of hormones by your brain to let your body know there is something to take notice of here (safety, attraction, etc.). Literally, it’s love on the brain.

In her study conducted at Rutgers University, Dr. Fisher discovered there are three categories of romantic love: Lust, attraction, and attachment. Crushes fall under the attraction category and release three major hormones: Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Produced in the hypothalamus, the “feel good hormone” dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for cuing up the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. It helps control our movements and emotional reactions so when we have a crush, our dopamine levels increase which leads us to feel overstimulated in their presence. Knowing this, it makes my sweaty palms and heightened awareness of my crush’s nearness seem a lot less like my body is rebelling against me.

Along with dopamine, norepinephrine also affects our emotional and physical responses by making our hearts race, our palms sweat, and checks burn so brightly that we look like we have a third degree sunburn. At the same time, while our dopamine and norepinephrine levels are on the rise, our brain is also producing extra cortisol — a stress hormone. When cortisol levels increase, serotonin — a hormone responsible for concentration and happiness —  decreases causing us to feel suddenly bombarded by intrusive, obsessive thoughts about our crushes. While in the initial weeks (or months) we develop a crush it can feel like that’s the only thing we can possibly think about, over time our crush typically dissipates. So it turns out, it isn’t me being bad at crushes, it’s just the nature of crushes themselves that make me feel entirely uncoordinated and socially awkward.

My team moved floors soon after that awkward salad bar incident and over time, my crush went from being in the forefront of my mind to becoming a memory filed away. My cortisol decreased, my serotonin returned to normal levels which allowed me the space to once again navigate my to do lists without getting lost in romantic fantasies. That is until I arrived at my friend’s dinner party and across the room, laid eyes upon a lanky green-eyed brunette with an infectious smile. Damn, here me and my dopamine go again. 


Thanks for reading! This piece was originally written a year ago on spec for a magazine but got cut. It’s nice to have it out in the world now. Have I gotten better with crushes since writing this you might ask? Absolutely not but maybe there is a sweet sort of magic in that as well.  

2 thoughts on “Must Be Love on the Brain: The Chemistry of Crushes

  1. Trisha Navelkar June 14, 2019 / 3:16 pm

    Wonderful write! It was very interesting to read about the science behind having a crush.
    Thank you for sharing~


  2. Eileen June 17, 2019 / 1:14 am

    “I don’t crush crushes, crushes crush me.” — Ooooof. Yep.

    I couldn’t help but smile while reading this! You’ve captured the essence of crushes/crushing so well. Nothing brings the awk for me as much as when I realize I actually have a crush on someone. I also appreciate the neurobio/psych lesson—I aways just considered myself fickle minded, but perhaps there’s more it, ha!


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