Psychology of Attraction and Crushes
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, love is in the air – and that’s not all. Experiencing attraction is a natural part of the human experience and often happens quickly and subconsciously. While feeling “butterflies” around a “secret crush” might seem like a strictly teenage experience, it is common and healthy in adulthood as well. But what is happening in the brain when we experience attraction, why do we develop crushes on certain people and not others, and is there any purpose or benefit to these feelings?
Neuroscience Behind Attraction
While it can take less than a second for someone to develop attraction towards someone else, the neuroscience behind the chemical changes happening in the brain is complex. When we experience attraction or develop a crush, chemicals are released in the brain creating a stress and reward response. The first spark of attraction happens in the ventral tegmental area of the brain which produces the “feel good” neurotransmitter known as dopamine. These chemicals may cause one to be giddy, euphoric, and even to experience suppressed hunger and sleep cues. You may recall a time when someone made your heart thud erratically in your chest, heat rise in your body making you blush, and the sensation of being tongue-tied or not able to form coherent thoughts. All of these factors might remind you of a flight or fight trauma response, and this is because some of the same processes that happen in the sympathetic nervous system when confronted with a threat – like the release of norepinephrine – also occur when we perceive a potential mate. This is different than when one develops attachment or a stronger bond which is characterized by the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. Both attraction and attachment are intertwined; however, they are also mediated by their own neurotransmitters and hormones. Nevertheless, the evolutionary purpose of both sets of chemical responses for attraction and attachment are to increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction.
How Crushes Develop
Even if we know the chemical processes in the brain, we may still not understand why crushes develop or why we are drawn to certain people and not others. There are five components to attraction and developing a crush: physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity, reciprocity, and familiarity. We are often drawn to people who are similar to us as well as people who remind us of loved ones whether that be parents, past partners, or friends. This in part explains why we are more likely to date partners that share traits or experiences with us such as race, education level, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation in addition to us being more likely to be in proximity to people who are similar to us. We are also subconsciously influenced by what media, cultural factors, and our social circles deem to be attractive. In addition, we are more likely to like those whom we perceive to like us as well as those whom we have repeated or regular exposure to, signaling that these people are safe and do not pose a threat to us. It is also important to remember that crushes are rooted in fantasy, and we may project our needs and desires on people we idolize and, therefore, do not know very well on a personal level. It may be beneficial to ask yourself what your crush might represent, such as parts of yourself that you want to reconnect with or values you aspire to uphold in your life.
Benefits of Crushes
While having a crush might feel like a rollercoaster of emotions, there can be a plethora of benefits that actually improve our health, wellbeing, and relationships. Studies have shown that crushing can decrease loneliness, boost confidence, and give us important insight into our needs and desires that help us to improve our real relationships by highlighting what they may be lacking. Crushes, even when not acted upon, can also inspire people to perform better at work, engage more creatively with their passions, and be generally more active. Nevertheless, attraction and crushing can have a dark side. When crushes become all-consuming and lead to obsessive thoughts associated with limerence, there can be dangerous effects such as dysfunctional relations including neglecting one’s own life, attempting to manufacture an inorganic connection, or even behaviors such as stalking. If you or someone you know is struggling with managing feelings related to attraction, crushes, or other relationships, reach out to Embrace Therapy for additional support and resources