Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Crush, Explained by Science

Careful, don't get burned.
"What is this volatile, often uncontrollable feeling that hijacks the mind, bringing bliss one moment, despair the next?"
--Helen Fisher, Why We Love

The other day, a reader contacted me to tell me she had something I had to write about. She reported that since attending her high school reunion a month back, her old flame had been poking her on Facebook. "Every day," she said meaningfully. It was clear from her words that this virtual poking was getting her all hot and bothered. "It's knowing that, at least for some moment in the day, I am on his mind," she reported.

At first I reacted like I usually do when someone tells me something I Simply Must Write About, which is to pretend that I am interested, then never actually write about it.

But the more I thought about it, I realized the story was the crush itself. Or how this very practical woman was now obsessively checking Facebook to see if any new pokes had come in from Mr. Reunion Dude. She had actually eroticized the little cartoon poking hand icon from Facebook which, to refresh your memory, looked like this:
Is this making you hot?
Still, her Pavlovian response to Facebook pokey hand is perfectly normal. Anyone in the midst of a crush has all sorts of neurochemical crap going on.

The last time I had a crush, I could tell exactly the moment it hit me. We were talking in my driveway, he said something vaguely risque, and I felt it come down upon me, like an actual thing. Like an affliction. "Oh fuck," I thought.

Because, although a crush is delightful and exciting and makes the world shine brighter, it is an affliction. A brain affliction. An affliction as in "pain, suffering and distress."

In her (quite excellent) book, "Why We Love," anthropologist Helen Fisher identified certain characteristics of people "in love." And I mean "in love" in the sense of "God, I want to lick their neck" instead of the "We've been together 35 years and he's an excellent father" kind of love. Like crazy stupid love where you do fucked up things and act psychotic. That one governor who snuck off to Brazil to meet his lover while claiming to be hiking? His kind of love. The astronaut chick who drove across the country to confront her romantic rival while wearing astronaut diapers to hasten her trip? Her kind of love.

According to Fisher, lovestruck people exhibit certain characteristics, including:
--"Special Meaning": This is giving the loved one an elevated status above others. "Your beloved becomes novel, unique and all-important," writes Fisher.
--Focused Attention: "The love-possessed person focuses almost all of his or her attention on the beloved, often to the detriment of everything and everyone else," writes Fisher. (see above: governor ditching his job.) "Infatuated men and women also concentrate on all of the events, songs, letters, and other little things they have come to associate with the beloved." (That would be you, Facebook pokey finger.)
--Aggrandizing the Beloved:  This means that although you can see the beloved's faults, you somehow reframe them as charming quirks. This what was probably happening to me when the (thankfully unconsumated) Crush above was later telling me about some penis test he got for flippin' gonorrhea. It involved a tube and his urethra, but I was all, "Oh really? That's fascinating!"
--"Intrusive Thinking": This is when you can't stop thinking about your loved one. In a 1988 survey, in love respondents reported thinking about their "'love object' over 85 percent of their waking hours." 85 percent! This happened to me with Gonorrhea boy. I would lie awake in bed thinking of him, so much so that it actually became tiresome. At a certain point, I didn't even want to be thinking of him, but my mind kept returning to him, as though he were a plague upon my brain.
--Looking for clues: This is the source of all "What do you think he really meant when he said I was 'interesting?'" conversations.
--Emotional fire: That's when you're so damn happy that eating or sleeping seems so...pedestrian.
--Intense energy: This includes exhilaration as well as the overwhelming awkwardness in the beloved's presence. Noted Andres the Chaplain in the 1180s: "Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of the beloved." This would be the feeling of "How do I act normal around this delightful, insanely sexy person to disguise the fact that I am obsessively thinking about putting my mouth upon their upper thigh (the left one)?"

Fisher identified several others symptoms like jealousy, hope, adversity strengthening ardor, and such but I, sadly crush-less and thus unfueled by its exhilaration, grow weary upon listing them all.

Even Richard Burton was not immune to the overwhelmingly potent forces of attraction and noted upon meeting the 19 year old Elizabeth Taylor:
She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud...Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires before they withered...her body was a miracle of construction...She was unquestionably gorgeous. She was lavish. She was, in short, too bloody much....those huge violet eyes had an odd glint...Aeons passed, civilizations came and went while these cosmic headlights examined my flawed personality. Every pockmark on my face became a crater of the moon.
So why do we act like such insecure ass-wipes when we when love someone? Fisher asked herself the same question, though I don't believe she used the term "ass-wipes." She promptly stuck some lovestruck folks into an fMRI machine to see what the hell was going on in their poor, love-addled brains.

What she found was a neurochemical stew driving the ass-wipeian behavior. The ancient reptilian brain, with its dumb quest for good feelings was going crazy. One part--the caudate nucleus, if you must know--is associated with the reward system of the brain and affects "general arousal, sensations of pleasure and the motivation to acquire rewards." Also active was the ventral tegmenal area (VTA), spewing dopamine about the brain, willy-nilly, giving lovers "focused attention...fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation--even mania." 

As a result, few drives are more basic and strong than the quest to bind with a lover. Fisher calls it, "a primordial brain network that drives the lover to focus his or her attention on life's grandest prize--a mate who may pass their DNA toward eternity."

I'll leave you today with these questions:
--Does any of this sound familiar?
--What undesirable characteristics have you overlooked while hepped up on love?
--And finally, do you not completely love the sentence, "She was, in short, too bloody much"?
UPDATE:  8/23/22.  If you hadn't guessed by all the passe cultural references (though, oddly, once a reference gets super passe, it becomes okay, ie 1180's Andres the Chaplain.), this is a rerun. Please do not alert your local authorities.


Jill Hamilton said...

Crap! I forgot to tell you that a blood test study showed that people in love and people with unmedicated OCD had significantly lower levels of serotonin than the regular old control subjects. Serotonin being the happy chemical that can control obsessive rumination.

Unknown said...

I love a good crush. I collect them.

Crushes have helped to keep me faithful to my husband.

I hate when there are no crush worthy folks in my world, they keep me feisty.

Vesta Vayne said...

OOooooh. Yes, a crush makes you crazy stupid, mania is pretty accurate. But it's an addictive feeling. The first six months my husband and I dated, I slept maybe two hours a night. I was also in grad school and working two jobs. That crush adrenaline kept me going!

Betty Fokker said...

Maybe it's because I have Asperger's, but I HATED having crushes. They hurt. Even if they became requited because I felt I had to hide "me" or they would leave. (this was accurate, BTW) Plus, I can't hide my feelings so I was obvious to the point of blithering. I HATE blithering. I don't count my hubby as a crush because we fell in love simultaneously and it was all joy, no pain. I was always just me with him.

Anonymous said...

I once obsessed over a hair scrunchie.

That was weird.

Anonymous said...

Ever read any ancient Greek philosophy on eros? Said very similar things. Really interesting.

Kate W said...

Talking of reunions, I still carry a torch for a guy that kissed me over 30 years ago; I can still feel, taste and smell him all these years later even though I have not seen him for quite some time. Physically he has changed but I dont look at him as a man in his mid-forties and he is the only school friend that can truly transport me back to the young girl I was back 1981. I feel butterfles in my tummy, my knees turn to jelly and I come over all unnecessary. Thank you for sharing such an interesting blog.

Can't keep anything to myself said...

Crushes are torture, but the most delicious kind of torture. They make you realize what a masochist you really are. It's such a fun feeling though when your insides are squirming and you're smiling at random people like an idiot because you're thinking about them again and your jaw hurts from smiling so hard/much.

Paul said...

In the old days it's simply called Romeo and Juliet....

in bed with married women said...

Annabelle, I agree. I think crush passion is a vital life force.
Vesta Vayne, it is so addictive, like scientifically so, and I'll tell you why in the next post. I'm going to make you wait though to keep you unfulfilled and edgy. Because crushes thrive on that $%$%.
Betty, I love your report from the Aspie's front. So interesting.
Doug Stephens, Would it look bad in my search history if i google "scrunchie fetish" now?
Anonymous, I've only read a Roman, Ovid. So interesting that what he has to say on love (barriers make ardor stronger, etc...) is unchanged all these centuries later.
Kate W, I hear you. I SO hear you. See also (http://inbedwithmarriedwomen.blogspot.com/2011/02/k-i-ss-ing.html)
Paul, indeed.
Can't keep anything to myself--Your words have inspired me for the next post.

Enid Wilson said...

I put salt into my hot chocolate, while I was thinking about him. That's when I knew I was in love.

Every Savage Can Reproduce

Anonymous said...

In his book, "The Erotic Mind", Jack Morin calls this crazy beautiful brain chemistry condition, "limerence". It is our limbic system doing what it evolved to do. Limerence is wonderful. It can make a 60+ year old man a teenager again.

HSky said...

Great article! Though I prefer the line "Her breasts were apocalyptic..."

Anonymous said...

Ouch. I agree that crushes hurt. (Yes, you Audrey kallstrom). I am pretty certain I flunked algebra because of my obsession with that girl. It hurt so much to keep having to think about her. I knew she was out of my league, knew it well.
On the other hand The fact that she even knew I was alive made it feel worth it. Never forget those eyes, that face.

Anonymous said...

unquestionably familiar. I can't remember ever feeling that good. It was so distracting and intoxicating, I had an affair - so, the obvious undesirable characteristic was that this person was not my spouse. Except for being a CPOS, I've never felt that alive.
I've been trying for years to feel that way again.

Anonymous said...

Been reading you a while and gotta say, you deliver the goods in a sassy, smart-ass way that I love.

Not quite brave enough yet to use my actual identity (Hi mom and dad! Aren't you proud of me reading about sex when I should be cleaning the house?)but I will get there.

I read part 2 about the chemicals first, and that was probably good because I'm a scientific sort of girl, with a math degree and I like knowing the biological basis for why we act like fucktards a lot of the time.

Happily married to my high school sweetheart, thought I'd throw that in, and he still gives me that feeling you described so well about gonorrhea boy, BUT...

Before I was married I had a four year affair with the ultimate crush. I'm still not over him. We are still (25 fucking years later (though we haven't fucked since I got married)) in touch. When I see it's a text from him, I get those stupid tingly OMG it's HIM, paying attention to ME OMG OMG OMG he actually likes me still. It must have been real for him too or why would he still text me all these years later? It's validation of my stupid behavior. (Yes, I know, there's no excuse good enough for taking someone else's man though of course he had me convinced that they were really not married anymore, the relationship was over, he just couldn't divorce her because he didn't want to disappoint his mom and I actually bought it hook, line and sinker for the amazing lay that he was.) Have never experienced anything like it since. We were completely obsessed with each other and would take ANY opportunity to fuck, regardless of the risk. We HAD to. Man, knowing that there were chemicals feeding that whole thing helps me. A little. Because of course I still agonize over my stupidity in falling for him. I also agonize over what I would do if he still lived within driving distance. I wonder if I would have been able to stay faithful if he hadn't moved across the country.
He was 17 years older.
I still have wet dreams about him.
Anyway, hi. Love your blog. And I know that was pretty long and personal, but I've read all the comments on all the posts I've read and it appears that TMI is alive and rampant and welcome...

So I'll sign this,
Golfman's Girl

in bed with married women said...

Goffman's girl: Welcome, and yes, love TMI cause that's the true stuff. And...maybe this is helpful or completely depressing, but the OMG OMG thing you describe tends to go away after 2-4 years. two to four years of glorious fucking, but still. although since you still have the crushy feelings about your husband, you may be the rare sort that is able to keep the feeling long term. (and those still-in-love folks aren't lyin'. you can see their love in their brain scans.)

Anonymous said...

There are several books, I believe, worth mentioning in this connection. To my mind, they are:
Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love
by Dorothy Tennov, Love in the Western World by Denis De Rougemont, and
The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other by James Hollis.

Oh yes, that magical other… I sometimes wonder whether that magical other is a pure projection of our own proclivities, vulnerabilities, predilections, sensibilities etc. etc. or whether that projection is dependent on some adrenaline-, dopamine- (or whatever chemical-) inducing circumstances, or whether there might be delineated a kind of a permanent, kind of objective constellation of distinctive characteristics (voice, colour of hair, shape of, e.g., bosom or hands, comportment,etc. etc.) that each of us is selectively susceptible to.

Incidentally, I like Toni Bentley’s metaphor about the nature of female love:

“All that hard-won “equality” between men and women has put a serious dent in many sex lives and the popularity with women of the Fifty Shades trilogy attests—it is a multi-million strong poll—with its 1950’s-style (the heroine ends up married with babies) BDSM nice-n’-lite that women are sick of being side by side. Equality during sex is simply contra naturam. Someone has to go up on the cross and suffer pleasure and someone has to tie her up there and enforce her salvation. Despite the anointment of the ubiquitous “bad girl” in our culture women still want to be the sacrificial saint. There is a reason we all say “MyGodmyGodmyGod!!” a great deal more often than the name of the poor bastard doing all the work down there.” (https://treatsmagazine.com/sex-lit-101-erotica/)

Rick said...

I am happily married now for fifteen years and my crush with my significant other has not faulted. With three beautiful boys each day is a blessing. I am so glad my life is simple and do not have to deal so many other horrible feelings. My partner and I are equal and share both in lifes toils as well as joys and that is the way it is meant to be.

Anonymous said...

Crushes are delicious and tortuous. I remember when my marriage was disintegrating and I felt very lost and unattractive. I ran into an acquaintance who was merely making conversation but even conversation seemed so monumental to me in my alone state. The fantasy of attraction woke me up to my possible life, what I might experience instead of complete isolation. It was exhilarating. With that in mind, when the focus of my attention became overwhelming I started to remind myself that the person I was attracted to was a fantasy. I knew I didn't really know the real person. I would lecture myself that he was "Fantasy Man" not "Reality Man." It was like talking myself off the ledge and back to reality. Slowly I recovered and made the decision to leave a dead marriage with no attachment to anyone being the reason why. But I wonder if I had allowed myself to really develop the crush, to make physical what for me was purely mental - would I have blamed the crush for the end of my marriage?

Anonymous said...

Jill, you make my day once a week, thank you♡

Sextant said...

I have read that there are romance junkies. They get addicted to the chemical cocktail of the crush and when things start to cool off they dump the poor unsuspecting partner and go off in search or another fix.

I love Helen Fisher's books. Her latest which is actually been around for a while, Why Him, Why Her was a wonderful book in which I actually learned a great deal about myself (no easy trick because I was in my 60s when I read it). I found great value in the book even though I am not in search of a relationship. All models are short cuts of course, but still it helps to categorize the spectrum of human behavior into manageable bins. I am a little uncomfortable with her position in Chemistry.com. I liked it better when she was just a researcher at Rutgers, although her work at Chemistry.com may give her insight on large samples of human behavior. She has an interesting web site at:


Another condition that I find puzzling is the sexual ennui that attends some long term relationships. It seems that people can start to love their spouse as a family member and lose sexual interest in them altogether. In the book What Women Want, Daniel Bergner describes the condition and some of the potential drugs being developed to treat it. One of the drugs, flibanserin, received a recommendation for approval (NOTE recommendation...not approval) from an FDA forward committee earlier this month.

Personally I find the brain chemistry of love to be fascinating.

I must confess that although I was never a Elizabeth Taylor fan (without a doubt she was not hard to look at but her acting sucked in my opinion), I was moved by Burton's description of her. The apocalyptic breasts toppling empires does put me in mind of a Japanese monster movie...a giant breast crashing through downtown Tokyo with the Japanese Defense Force tanks and fighter aircraft streaming endless rounds of tracer fire at it. Godizilla verses Apocalyp-Tit.

Great Post!

in bed with married women said...

Anonymous, with the book references, I somehow never saw your comment til now! Yes yes, what you wrote is so fascinating! And will love to read those books.
Rick, good for you, man.
Anonymous 2, yes, i love hearing the commonality of our experiences of feeling things deeply. and now i'm wondering if some random person in our lives has/had been crushing on us so significantly as well, unbeknownst to us.
Anonymous 3. so kind! thank you !!!!
Sextant, what a lovely well written comment. A+, I say! Love Daniel Bergner, as well as Apocalyp-Tit.

Anonymous said...

I'm a straight single white male.

Many years ago, I had a crush on a woman whom I saw once a week. Although she let me know that she wasn't interested in me, I had difficulty deflating my feelings for her. Moving to another city and meeting new people helped a lot.

Nowadays, I have crushes on women who live far away, including a tall, blonde TV meteorologist whom I worship in the morning and a lesbian politician.