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When I was in middle school, I had a crush on a boy named Jack. I went to basketball camp the summer before 7th grade knowing that I was not really an athlete, but that this crush of mine was. I made sure my hot pink Nike mid-calf socks were at the perfect length, my royal blue basketball ball shoes were laced up in a cool way and that there was nothing lodged in my braces. I gained the courage to text him and ask if he wanted to meet up after camp behind the gym. He agreed. We avoided eye contact the entire day leading up to it, dribbling awkwardly around each other during the drills until finally, it was time. Tensions were high. We shared an awkward hug and said we liked each other. Then, it was made official; the word quickly spread around camp that we were now boyfriend and girlfriend.

All I really remember from middle school crushes is the awkwardness and extreme tension that came with them. I would daydream in class of going on movie dates with this Nike Elite-wearing, brace-faced popular kid, but then if we happened to make brief eye contact during geometry class, my face would turn beet red and my palms would sweat out an ocean.

The crushes that I had in middle school were the first time I felt the spark with someone, and it was exhilarating.

A crush is an infatuation with someone who is relatively unattainable or unknown. It’s the person who is always reading at the coffee place at the same time as us and flashed a smile in our direction that one time. It’s the person at work who’s always caught us staring since the moment they casually asked what our name was. Everything about them becomes romanticized in our minds, and the excitement of seeing them once a week or so adds a little pep to our step during the days leading up.

Crushes were exhilarating and fun in middle school, and they still are now. But they are also very important to our self discovery and overall mental health.

In a Forge article, Why Having a Crush is Good for You, science journalist Sarah Griffith explains that when we experience love or lust, the nerve cells in our brain release a chemical called norepinephrine that causes the production of adrenaline. She says this is the reason our palms will start to sweat and our hearts begin to pound. Dopamine is released, which she says is the reason we are so talkative and excited, sputtering out random things to our crushes. Whether we are in love or just have a crush that is not reciprocated, the same chemical reaction happens in our brain. This can explain why crushes can sometimes become obsessive.

Griffith quotes Dr. Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, who explains that crushes play a strong role in human development at young ages. They are a safe way for adolescents to explore their romantic emotions and sexuality without the consequences or heartbreak that may come with a real relationship. On top of all of these benefits, crushes make us happy in general.

Crushes were common and expected in middle school, but the same feelings are still formed during our lives in college. 

So what do crushes look like for college students? They are less awkward than middle school because we are more sure of ourselves, but they are still just as exciting. A boring Stats 250 class can become a lot more interesting when you find yourself eye flirting with someone across the lecture hall.

When I made an Instagram poll asking my followers to describe their favorite parts of having a crush, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. 

“The excitement that comes with them and feeling really young and innocent. So much of the ‘unknown.’”

“It’s exhilarating and also kind of affirming.”

“Fear and excitement of the unknown.”

“The possibility of them liking you back.”

“Giving me something to look forward to and makes life feel exciting.”

And don’t forget about the butterflies. Two people replied saying that the stomach fluttering feeling is their favorite part.

What I took from these responses is that the feelings of fear and exhilaration when we romanticize someone new makes life all the more exciting to live. Having a crush is a nearly universal experience during middle school and into college, some of the more shaping years of our lives.

I interviewed a recent University of Michigan graduate, Summer Benton, and asked how crushes shaped her college experience. 

“They were one of the main things that took me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I feel like usually the crushes I had were strong enough to make me go to parties I normally wouldn’t or take classes or join extracurriculars I usually wouldn’t because I wanted to see them or have shared interests. But lots of the time I would end up finding a community or subject that genuinely resonated with me and my love for them always lasted long after the crush faded.”

There is nothing better than doing everything to try and bump into a crush but making it look effortless and spontaneous. And as Summer described, sometimes this plotting can take your life down a path you wouldn’t expect. It can lead to self discovery that is much bigger than the crush itself.

The reason I was interested in looking into crushes is because I have come to believe that this past year has caused a sort of crush drought. My close friend brought to my attention that she had not experienced a crush towards someone in a long time. It was frustrating and upsetting for her. Life is dull without the chemical reaction in our brains that we get from feeling love or a crush on someone else.

In the aforementioned article, Griffith explains how the feelings that come with crushes can decrease loneliness and even boost confidence. As my friend and I concluded that the pandemic had a strong effect on one’s ability to crush and the overall solitude most of us felt, we wondered if the lack of crushes contributed to this feeling of loneliness. There was a general lack of human connection this past year, which bled into the crush world as well. I was curious if other college students felt a similar frustration.

I polled my Instagram followers on whether or not they feel as if their ability to crush has decreased in our online world. 72% said yes and 28% said no. Matt Noel, one of the people who disagreed, raised the point that there is extra mystery that Zoom and online platforms offer, making crushes more intense and plentiful than before.He continued by describing how confusing crushes feel over Zoom. He says he found himself thinking, “Are they looking at me through the Zoom screen? Or have I fully lost my mind?” 

I, too, have wondered if eye contact is possible over Zoom. 

All this being said, I believe there is a pent-up demand for crushes as we exit this pandemic-ridden world. I’m not sure if this means we will revert back to our awkward middle school days of hugging behind gyms because we’re relearning how to crush, or we will all just have a lot more love to distribute to strangers we pass on the street or sit a row away from in lecture. Either way, crushes are good for our mental health, and who knows what they might lead to — maybe a partner for life or just some good old self discovery.

Although crushes are based on fantasy, they are also a way to grow in more tangible ways. So if a little crush in my lecture hall will force me to go to class and, in theory, help me graduate college, what’s the harm in that?

Statement columnist Nicole Winthrop can be reached at newin@umich.edu