Butterflies, chemistry, vibes, that feeling of being tingly all over—there are many ways to describe infatuation. We’ve all had crushes, from the very first moment we locked eyes on that guy or girl in the playground. All it takes is that special someone to make our palms sweaty and our hearts pound.
Dante had Beatrice, Petrarch had Laura, and Shakespeare had his Dark Lady. In the Middle Ages, it was considered a sign of valor for a knight to have his lady love. The courtly love ideal was an infatuation that could never be consummated. The thought was that the experience of infatuation elevated one’s mind to higher, nobler thoughts and deeds.
But crushes aren’t all stars and symphonies. Most objects of infatuation are unattainable and the potential for hurt feelings is high. (That’s why they’re called “crushes.”) So high, in fact, that neuroscientist Larry Young has mentioned the possibility of a future anti-love drug. A frequent synonym given for infatuation is “folly,” suggesting that the ultimate effects of a crush reduce mental capacity and cause grave consequences from the stupidity of fixated passion, as it did in the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde, who accidentally consumed a love potion and turned into hopeless addicts.
The idea of a potion for love is no doubt based on the observation that we seemed to be hooked on the stuff; we’re all junkies for that rush of emotion. We even seek out celebrities to crush on when we run short of people to pursue with blind devotion. So what are crushes—and what purpose do they serve?
The Chemical High
They say laughter is the best medicine, but the real medicine might be infatuation. When we’re attracted to someone, our bodies release chemicals that are both beneficial and pleasurable. Phenylethylamine (PEA) speeds up the communication between nerve cells and triggers the release of dopamine, which creates a feeling of bliss. Diane Ackerman, author of The Nature of Love and A Natural History of the Senses, attributes the motivation needed to take social risks to the frenzy of excitement PEA creates, giving the chemical an essential role in overcoming obstacles to mating and ensuring species survival. Norepinepherine stimulates adrenaline production. Combined, these three chemicals act as amphetamines, elevating energy and mood levels. Their effects usually last from six months to three years, after which people either decide to stick with each other or find a new high.
That’s where oxytocin, a pituitary hormone composed of nine amino acids, comes in. Oxytocin is another important hormone to infatuation because it’s responsible both for turning us on sexually and making us want to cuddle. It’s triggered by dopamine during initial infatuation (by a sexy smile, seductive touch, etc.), but increases with prolonged touch. In combination with testosterone and estrogen, oxytocin helps both men and women reach orgasm, although women are more susceptible to its influence, since it’s a key hormone in bonding mother and child. It’s also a natural tranquilizer, which is why women are more likely to fall asleep after sex than men.
Like oxytocin, which is released proportionately to the duration of touch, endorphins take over after the high of infatuation has worn off, provided the relationship contains enough of the key elements that stimulate their release. Endorphins are triggered by what we generally consider true love: trust, friendship, compassion, acceptance, and affection. They are natural opiates and continue to increase the flow of dopamine. According to some findings, endorphins are probably the reason that people in stable, long-term relationships tend to live longer, healthier lives. They replace pain with pleasure and increase resistance to stress. Just like heroin, morphine, or any other opiate, endorphins are habit-forming, so being separated from a loved one usually results in withdrawal. Fortunately, chocolate also stimulates endorphin release, which is why it’s such a popular break-up remedy.
Tell Me About Your Childhood …
Aside from the biochemical reactions involved in infatuation that help the body achieve a more relaxed, happy state, there are psychological benefits to crushes, as well. Sigmund Freud, the great love shrink, argued that our behaviors and emotions repeat patterns that are imbedded in our psyches from early experience. We get a rush of feeling when we meet someone who reminds us of an earlier relationship, especially if there were unresolved issues in that relationship. This allows us to work through those issues with the new partner and move on.
Harville Hendrix, author of Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles, builds on Freud’s theory. He postulates that we hold a mental construct called an imago, a highly individual imprint in each of our memory banks, that embodies both positive and negative attributes of our earliest caretakers. This imago is like an intimacy template for our dream lover, influencing and filtering our perceptions so that we are particularly attentive and sensitized to those who match our private patterns. The perception of strong attraction then acts as an internal signal which stimulates PEA release. The hope is that things will turn out better and we will have more control this time around than in our earlier relationship dynamics.
Far from mere folly, crushes are natural reactions that appear to be built in to our biochemical and psychological makeup. Infatuation has an important role in forging bonds, improving mood and energy, and resisting stress.
The down side to crushes is that, if they don’t work out (which most don’t), the endorphin withdrawal is grueling and awful. The feeling is analogous to heroin withdrawal, with symptoms that include depression, loss of appetite, and insomnia. Fortunately, there are natural endorphin triggers like exercise and, yes, chocolate, that can get you back on your feet after a break up. That is, until you fall for someone all over again.
Updated February 12, 2010