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Your Brain in Love: How Romantic Attraction Alters the Brain

Crushes can rewire our brains in strange and compelling ways.

Key points

  • Love is not just physical. It is also a set of chemical reactions in the brain.
  • Our brains are intricately involved in developing crushes and attraction towards others.
  • Although there's science behind it, no math formula can explain which relationships endure and which fail.

In the springtime, the natural world bursts into life and seems to shine a little brighter just as our interest in finding a romantic partner begins to light up our brains a little brighter. There are some scientific reasons for this shift in focus and readiness for attachment. As the days get longer, we enjoy more sunshine, and our vitamin D intake naturally increases. Vitamin D not only helps build strong bones, it also increases the effectiveness of our immune system, which can pay off in feeling better overall. But it also boosts our mood, which helps us see the world from a more positive perspective. We feel more optimistic about life and, if you’re looking, more optimistic about finding a partner.

Longer days also suppress melatonin production in the brain, which can sharpen our senses for more hours a day. Sunshine generally brightens our mood, and when we’re feeling good about the world, we see more possibility in a potential mate than we would on a cold or rainy day. When we see wildly blooming flowers or smell the perfumed scent of flowers in the air, the colors of nature so brightly shining, hear the birds singing, or catch sight of baby animals scampering, we tend to feel desires well up for having a partner to enjoy these things with.

You feel it deep in your soul when you develop a crush or are infatuated with someone. You might obsess over when you will see them again, think about what you want to wear or how you want to look and go to great lengths to schedule your day to ensure your paths cross at some point. You may feel like you’re burning with desire.

Crushing Hard Can Be Oh-So-Painful

When you’re in the throes of a crush, that glorious space where simply recalling moments of contact, even if only visual contact, with the object of your crush, can flood your system with endorphins that make you feel high and oxytocin that makes you want to bond. Dopamine is part of the party, too. It is part of a reward system that gives you a lift when you see your crush and drives your desire to see your crush again. It feels so good until you realize that you’re not actually in their company in the moment.

Thoughts of the possibility of seeing your crush keep your adrenaline coursing through your body until you get to be with them. You ache for their presence. There’s also a component of paranoia that might come with a serious crush–your hypervigilant focus on your crush can become an obsession. Your serotonin levels may drop to levels similar to those diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s how laser-focused people can become as their crush peaks. And that’s where the pain can come in–lower serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. It’s easy to see why love can hurt, scar, and wound, as the group Nazareth claims.

When your crush is crushing right back on you, and you’ve landed on the same “need to be with you every waking moment” wavelength, you’ve entered the highly charged limerence state. And that’s when crushing on someone really starts to feel oh-so-good.

Crushing Hard Can Be Oh-So-Good When It Evolves Into Mutual Limerence

Being in limerence can be a lovely state, but not one that people can sustain long-term. It’s that relationship period when people are totally mad at one another and feel that any moment not spent together is not worth living. People are still viewing their beloved as they imagine them to be. In other words, people are in love with their projections of the other person, and projections tend to gloss over another’s foibles and paint them as someone too perfect to be true.

Your brain can be befogged by thoughts of the beloved and anchored on time spent with them. And this is all okay for a minute or maybe even 18 months. After that period of time, the bonding hormones might kick in, and a nice, committed, and settled relationship can evolve. Or the projections get washed away by the nitty gritty not-so-pretty details of everyday life, and a couple realizes that the attraction that once kept them glued together has crumbled into dust. Their beloved is not so beguiling after all.

No equation explains the math behind which committed relationships will develop along upward linear trajectories and which crater out quickly. There’s no guarantee a crush will grow into friendship into limerence into commitment into a lifelong love. Human beings and human lives are dynamic; for relationships to endure, they must be dynamic. Expecting a static state of being “in love” or “bliss” to persist may be misplaced unless each person is willing to flex, change, and grow with the other as needs and desires change. People are not static, and healthy relationships should not be static.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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