The Neuroscience Behind Having A Crush

Have you ever felt like you’ve fallen in love with someone instantly? Did it make you feel nervous? Excited? Terrified? Happy? Sad? When you have a crush, do even the small things that person does make you extremely excited and happy? For example, he/she can do as little as say hi to you first and you’re all of a sudden over the moon with happiness for the rest of the day. Personally, every time I have a crush, I seem to embarrass myself. It has made me wonder what exactly is going on in the brain that affects our emotions and actions so much? So much goes into love and having a crush on someone. It’s hard to know what’s going on in your mind when you’re having these thoughts. However, after you read this, you’ll know. 

Before we can understand the neuroscience behind a crush and love in general, we need to define the different ways our body can respond to feel connected to another person. One of those ways is lust. Lust is a strong physical desire for that person. Surprisingly enough, lust actually does not come from the brain but instead from the ovaries and testes. When we experience lust, we are primarily releasing sex hormones. This is not true, however, when we experience attraction. Attraction is when you have an interest in someone or find that person pleasurable. When you are attracted to someone, the brain’s reward pathway is highly involved, especially in terms of the release of dopamine. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is well known for it’s role in evoking pleasure for us. When it is released in the brain, it can follow many different pathways. Dopamine is first produced in the substantia nigra, which is a part of the midbrain. When we feel attraction, dopamine is released and sent to the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is also located in the midbrain. The nucleus accumbens plays an important role in motivation-driven behaviors, including feeding, reward, stress-related, and sexual behaviors. After this, the dopamine moves to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus plays a huge role in homeostatic functions such as hunger, thirst, body temperature control, and sleep. 

Figure 1 – The substantia nigra, nucleus accumbens, and hypothalamus locations and reward pathway.

Thinking of all of these structures that are affected when we feel attracted to someone, it makes sense that we feel the way we do when we have a crush on someone. Dopamine is one of the reasons why we feel immense pleasure whenever we think about our crush, even though it could be someone we know nothing about. The nucleus accumbens is what motivates us to continue to have those feelings but could also be a reason why we sometimes feel stress and nervous around that person. Finally, the panic attack we all seem to have when our crush finally talks to us, the increased body temperature, decrease in appetite, and increased heart rate can all be explained by the involvement of the hypothalamus.

This isn’t the end however. Dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter that are affected when we find someone attractive. Cortisol, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin are all affected. Serotonin’s main function is to stabilize our mood. However, being attracted to someone can cause the production of this neurotransmitter to decrease. In the opposite direction, norepinephrine increases. Norepinephrine is actually created from dopamine. It can make you highly excitable and also can increase your ability to store new memories. Cortisol is a steroid that is released at times of stress. All of these factors play a role in why and how we feel the way we do when we fall for someone. 

Figure 2 – Cortisol, Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin functions. (Fabello, 2013)

Sometimes, we see people go overboard and do irrational things because of their crushed or loved ones. This can also be explained with the elements explained above. It’s very popular for people to get jealous when they see the one they have a crush on with another person. However, there are also cases where people go to the extreme with their jealousy. This can be explained by either too much dopamine or too much oxytocin being produced and released. Oxytocin plays a major role in forming attachments with loved ones. Once you have formed a relationship, it is usually oxytocin working with dopamine to alter your behaviors. When too much dopamine or oxytocin is released, you are more likely to act impulsively on your desires and pleasures. When what you desire is being threatened, people tend to make extreme decisions. 

Figure 3 – Driving Forces in lust, attraction, and attachment. (Mlynarski et al., 2020)

It’s also important to remember that everyone is different. Introvert and extroverts will experience and express these emotions in different ways. People in a relationship and people those who are dating will also behave differently. Additionally, personal experiences and trauma can effect our behaviors too. A lot of environmental and personal factors can affect how we treat our crushes, loved ones, and partners. However, even when all of this is taken into account, these neurotransmitters, hormones, and parts of the brain are all very important in getting the ball rolling in the brain so we can either embarrass ourselves in front of our crush or being to build a relationship with our partner.

Works Cited

M. Mlynarski, L. Egemeier, et. al,(2020, June 19). Love, actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship. Science in the News. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/#:~:text=High%20levels%20of%20dopamine%20and,eat%20and%20can’t%20sleep.

Fabello, M. A. (2013, January 19). The neurobiology behind all of the ridiculous things you do when you’re in Love. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://everydayfeminism.com/2012/12/the-neurobiology-behind-all-of-the-ridiculous-things-you-do-when-youre-in-love/

11 thoughts on “The Neuroscience Behind Having A Crush

  1. >Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is well known for it’s role in evoking pleasure for us.

    Dopaminergic populations are not necessary or sufficient for expression of pleasure in animals. This is a common misconception stemming from some old 1970s ideas that got stuck in the public consciousness despite science marching on.

    The neural substrates for the perceptions of pleasure (liking) in animals like primates are in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, sure, but they’re glutamergic populations and certainly not expressing any dopamine receptors. There’s a caudal to rostral gradient of glutamergic input/output likelyhood. These neural substrates have been show in both sacrificed animal models w/molecular methods and invasive neurostimulation techniques to evoke pleasure without any need of dopaminergic involvement.

    The dopaminergic populations like in the ventral tegemental area do project to thenucleus accumbens, but also connect to dopaminegic populations in the striatum are responsible for wanting (incentive salience). And these neural substrates of wanting are independent of liking (pleasure). They’re only indirectly associated.

    So yeah, dopamine is certainly involved in having a crush. That increased salience to all potential rewards makes everything seem more more intense and important. It biases you to value things that are rewarding. The essence of crushing. But that doesn’t imply actual pleasure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, dopamine is involved in ‘wanting’ but not ‘liking’. It can be challenging the understand the difference between wanting and liking because we often think if we want something that means we like it. We will definitely talk about this more in class!

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  2. Hello Yewande,

    You picked an interesting topic to write on. I was especially intrigued by the effects attraction had on serotonin. Having our serotonin decrease when we are attracted to someone makes sense and explains the fluctuation in the mood we experience when we have a crush. It is also interesting that something that can make us so giddy, like having a crush, can also increase our stress hormones.

    Some questions I thought of while reading your blog is how does our neurotransmitter levels, especially serotonin and dopamine, differ when we are in a relationship versus when we have a crush? Is there a difference in the projections of neurotransmitters when we see someone we like, someone we love, and someone who loved in the past?

    Great blog post!
    Sincerely, Bashaina (Shasha)

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  3. Hi Yewande, I really enjoyed this blog post! It made sense to read that various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin, may all be key factors in contributing to our psychological and physiological reactions when we see someone we feel attracted to. In addition, it was interesting that you compared the biological processes involved in lust, attraction, and attachment. Where would falling in love fit in? I began wondering, what are the similarities and differences in neural mechanisms when we feel love for someone compared to having a crush on someone? Would love involve a combination of all of these three processes?

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  4. Great blog post, Yewande! I myself have experienced many moments of embarrassing myself in front of a crush. I appreciate the break down of the parts of the brain and the roles of each neurotransmitter as it relates to crushing and relationship building. However, I am now wondering what would be the neurological makeup or situation for individuals who experience attraction and attachment but not lust towards others? Would those individuals have hormonal differences from the normal population or could it be that some other neurotransmitter/hormone is overriding/inhibiting the expression of lust?

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  5. Hi Yewande,

    I really liked how you differentiated the different neurotransmitters / hormones that are associated with different areas of attraction (lust, love, attachment, etc.). I’m really interested in the point you made about the behavioral consequences associated with too much dopamine and oxytocin being released. You described that an excess of these chemicals can lead to impulsive behaviors. When I think of impulsive, irrational behaviors in relationships, mood disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder come to mind. Specifically, I know a symptom of borderline personality disorder is a strong fear of abandonment and unstable relationships. I am now wondering if your comments on the neuroscience behind a crush can also be applied when thinking about mood disorders, like Borderline personality disorder.

    Best,

    Julia

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  6. Hi Yewande, I found this article very interesting. I learned a lot about the differences between lust and attraction. Previously, I kinda group those two feelings into a similar category but now I realize that they are two very different and separate emotions, that use unique parts of our brain. I was also wondering, are these bodily responses something that we ever habituate to, or can learn to grow out from a bit over time?

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  7. Hi Yewande,
    I enjoyed reading your blog post about the neuroscience behind having a crush- a topic that I was previously unfamiliar with! I didn’t realize that the mechanisms involved in experiencing lust and attraction are so distinct that one involves the ovaries and testes while the other involves the brain’s “reward pathway”. I would have expected that both lust and attraction stemmed from the reward pathway and neural mechanisms. Moreover, I was intrigued by the role that high levels of dopamine and oxytocin play in jealousy and impulsive behaviors that result when a desire is threatened in relation to a crush. You mention how these processes may differ based on environment, personality, and personal experiences. Does sex play a role in the neurotransmitters released in connection to attraction and jealousy?
    – Katia

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  8. Great post, Yewande! This is such an interesting topic to research, especially since it affects the lives of nearly every single person, sometimes to a large degree. The figure that you pulled from Fabello (2013) was really fun and playful while also being informative- I will definitely refer back to this figure in the future. One small detail that surprised me was that cortisol decreases obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I have always associated cortisol with stress, which I assume would exacerbate obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I also thought it was interesting that dopamine plays such a central role in crushes, especially since it tends to be involved in the anticipation of pleasure (and a crush can be an exciting “what if they like me back” situation). I’m wondering if there will be any future studies about how the levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters fluctuate in a relationship. It would be interesting to know if some gradually level out as the relationship progresses, if some increase/decrease more as it progresses, and if changes in neurotransmitters may even play a role in the general happiness of people in their relationship. Again, awesome topic choice and post!

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  9. Having a crush is such a unique feeling. It would make sense it involves neurological chemicals that are typically not present in our day to day life, with oxytocin being what I have in mind. The combination of dopamine and oxytocin is an interesting interaction that I never considered. Our goal-directed behavior would be to seek out the emotionally pleasant effects brought on with oxytocin.

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  10. This is very interesting!
    It has got me thinking if crushes, love, lust, romance, and friendship are even real or just chemical activities. For instance, does the external manipulation of these features create a specific feeling or sensation? Can a drug be administered to make someone fall involved with a particular person? It is not too far from a love charm. Overall, I enjoyed reading this!

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