For Sarah, the worst thing about having a crush is when its sparky, vitality-giving fizz inevitably fades. For the 33-year-old, who lives in Manchester, it's no biggie, though. She knows she'll find someone new to get hung up on, soon. In fact, she tells Women’s Health, a new crush comes her way ‘every other week.’
Sound a little... exhausting to you? Not so for the personal trainer. ‘Crushes make daily life more exciting, it's a buzz to see my crush or hear from them,' she says. ‘I also love flirting with them, wondering how they feel about me, and talking about it with my girlfriends.’
For many women like Sarah, ‘delulu is the solulu’. Not familiar with this phrase? In that case, it's likely you're not on TikTok. Last year, being ‘delusional' became not just a personality trait, but a lifestyle. In fact, the #delulu hashtag on Gen Z's favourite app currently has six billion views – a figure which has doubled in the last four months alone.
Being delusional, in this context, is all about indulging in your not-always-founded fantasies – especially when it comes to romance. Your crush glanced at you today? They’re in love with you. Liked your Instagram story? They’re trying to get you to notice them.
On the flip side, being delulu is also about brushing any negative reinforcements under the carpet. If said crush hasn’t replied to your message, they must be too shy or playing hard to get. It definitely isn’t because they don’t like you. Get it?
It doesn’t take a genius to know that there are pros and cons to the delulu mindset, depending, of course, on how delusional you actually are. But, as you can tell, the majority of self-proclaimed ‘delulu girls’ are engaging in the trend at least somewhat satirically. And, while it’s true that crushes do have the potential to veer into the negative, there is some truth in the idea that indulging in your romantic fantasies can have some genuinely positive effects on your brain.
What happens to your brain when you have a crush?
Given how it's your gut that flutters and heart that pounds when you catch feelings for someone, it's easy to forget that those heady sensations originate in your brain. So, what is the process of generating those giddy sensations?
For that, over to Gabija Toleikyte, a neuroscientist working at the University of Sheffield and author of Why the F*ck Can’t I Change? (Little, Brown Book Group, £13.99).
You can think of the human brain, she says, as being split into three different systems: the logical, or ‘human’ part, where you strategise and think logically about your five year plan; the emotional or ‘mammal’ part, where you experience feelings of love for your family; and the subconscious, or ‘reptilian’ part, where you experience instinctive and impulsive reactions, like jumping when you hear a car door slam.
Physical attraction, she explains, comes from the mammal part, containing your reward centres, which are responsible for pleasure. ‘That can be physical pleasure, from eating something good, or intellectual pleasure, from reading and enjoying a challenging book’, she says.
When you have a crush and interact with or even just think about the object of your desire, this system in involved in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which feels good, provoking feelings of the reward and the motivation to pursue more.
The other thing that happens in your brain when you see, talk to or think about a crush is that oxytocin, the neurotransmitter responsible for trust and attachment, is secreted. ‘Oxytocin is responsible for that warm sense of glow in the brain and body we get when we hug somebody we love or are attracted to, romantically or otherwise,’ Dr Toleikyte explains.
The psychological benefits of fancying someone
What's interesting is that this crush-induced influx of dopamine and oxytocin is responsible for some positive physiological benefits, from increased energy and motivation to better cognition.
‘Dopamine lifts our energy levels, makes us attend to our environment more and boosts our intellectual ability,' says Dr Toleikyte. 'Dopamine is also crucial for motivation; a feeling that things matter, that things have a point. So when we have that crush, and we have that dopamine, we're not only more motivated to be around that person or think about that person, but it also spills over into other areas of our lives.’
Social psychologist Sandra Wheatley seconds this. ‘Having a crush helps you to flex your emotional muscles, but it also encourages you to think about what it is you can offer this person,’ she says. Fantasising about being with your crush, then, may have the added benefit of incentivising you to work on yourself and reach your goals, so that you can be the best version of yourself.
Oxytocin also has enormous benefits to us, such as helping us to relax, unwind and feel less anxious overall. 'Oxytocin also dilates the blood vessels in the brain and body,' adds Dr Toleikyte. ‘This helps the body to relax and causes more blood to flow to the brain regions responsible for our cognition.’ That means, under the effects of oxytocin, we can perform better at certain tasks. Finally, oxytocin protects brain cells from the negative impact of stress.
Of course, as anyone who's had a crush that spiralled into conflicted feelings knows, these benefits are only sustained if they aren’t negated by guilt – because you’re crushing on someone while you’re in a relationship – or doubt. And, considering crushes are pretty much defined by that slither of doubt (will you or won't you?) it’s likely you’ll experience some downsides, too.
That’s not all — since crushes stem from a less logical and rational part of the brain, there’s also a good chance you might end up chasing someone who isn’t quite right for you. ‘We can’t tell [this brain system] which is crucial for decision making, who to be attracted to,’ says Dr Toleikyte. ‘That’s why, even if you tell yourself a list of criteria you want in a partner – which you’re doing with the intellectual, rational, human brain – the mammal brain can have different ideas. And ultimately, very often, it's the mammal brain that wins that fight.’
On top of that, while dopamine is responsible for pleasure, its shadow side is that it's also responsible for addiction. ‘The best formula for addiction is when there is a little bit of ‘yes’ with a lot of uncertainty,’ says Dr Toleikyte. ‘If you're sure that the person really likes you, things start developing, your brain gets more assured and it winds down. But the more uncertainty there is, the more dopamine is released.’
This means you may find yourself thinking about your crush constantly, getting distracted and, therefore, being less productive. Vanessa – who finds herself smitten by the odd crush despite being in a healthy, secure, long-term relationship – often drifts off into a milky dream state when she’s newly infatuated.
‘Certain songs start playing on the radio [that remind me of my crush], and then I get hooked, and want to play those songs over and over again,’ the 35-year-old tells us. ‘It can be a bit mind numbing and, when I am with my friends, they can tell my mind is drifting off. I feel in a way like I am 16 again.’
For those who aren’t in relationships, there’s a risk that you could end up ‘putting all your eggs in one basket,’ making what does or does not happen with your crush the hinge on which your happiness swings, says Dr Wheatley.
When it comes to batting off any negative consequences of having a crush, it’s probably safe to say that, in this instance, delusion isn’t really the solution. Though, considering all the psychological factors at play, a little bit of delusion can’t be helped — as Dr Toleikyte notes, with the mammal brain doing most of the work, it's a very subjective headspace, and you'll likely fall victim to your own confirmation bias. ‘The brain sees what it wants to see,’ she observes.
Still, Dr Wheatley suggests trying to keep your head as best you can. ‘Be honest with yourself, have those moments of insight, give yourself permission to drill down a bit deeper,' she says.
‘Don't go making yourself feel terrible, but try and look at it with an impartial eye as much as possible – have a check and balance. And if it still comes out in favour of yes, then keep going.’
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