Whether from real life, opera, books, or pop songs, we are all familiar with the act of falling in love. We have, perhaps, laughed at those who perform nonsensical or self-destructive acts in the name of love not even requited. It’s no wonder it’s been called insanity or even a disease. Neuroscientists at Stony Brook University are elucidating the chemistry of Cupid’s poisoned arrowhead.
A recent study published in The Journal of Neurophysiology indicates that the feeling of love, and the person who elicits it, activate brain areas similar to that of drug addicts. The feeling also triggers dopamine release related to motivation and reward. It seems that love is a goal-oriented motivation instead of merely a feeling.
A study conducted at Stony Brook University included 15 heterosexual female and male individuals who had recently broken up with a loved one but claimed to still be deeply “in love” with that person. They experienced what they described as constant pain and anguish, and they were particularly miserable when reminded of that person. The anguish bears many similarities to withdrawal. Extreme behaviors such as suicide, stalking, and homicide represent extreme cases of seeking recompense for the lost addictive object; these behaviors mimic those exemplified in of cocaine addicts. Furthermore, stimuli reminiscent of the lost lover, such as photos, exacerbate a craving similar to that of addicts longing for a return of their opiate.
The fMRIs possibly confirmed what was qualitatively observed. Participants were first shown a photo of the loved one, then asked to complete a math exercise to distract them, and then finally shown a picture of a neutral individual. Several significant areas lit up further when shown the picture of the loved one as opposed to the neutral individual. One of the areas more strongly activated was the ventral-tegmental area in the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward, and has been continuously correlated with feelings of romantic love. Other areas were the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, areas both associated with craving and addiction, particularly the dopaminergic reward system activated in cocaine addiction. Also activated were the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, centers involved in physical pain and distress.
Concerning the study, Dr. Arthur Aron states that “it shows that intense romantic love seems to function much like an addiction… But that does not tell us one way or the other whether the desire to be in love in general is an addiction.” However, it seems likely to me, that so long as we are drawn to the pleasurable, we can develop an addiction to it. Many of us have witnessed, I’m sure, certain individuals tending toward frequent infatuation or crushing. Those who seem to be in love with love.
Dr. Aron believes the study will not only bring insight into the enigma that is love, but help to treat those with addiction later. The study also brought consolation to its participants, revealing the aphorism “time heals all wounds” to be scientifically warranted. As time passed, an area of the brain associated with attachment, known as the right ventral putamen/pallidum, reacted less and less over time to a photo of the loved one.
Love, of course, is a many faceted diamond. Infatuation is but one of its angles, though it is the most sparkly and attractive, and it is usually what first catches the eye. Relationships involve an intricacy of emotions and motivations that are never static. However, the study seems to illustrate a truth concerning the self’s pleasure or reward that defines one of the key aspects of this poetic feeling.
Anguish of Rejection May Be Linked to Stimulation of Areas of Brain Related to Motivation, Reward and Addiction – ScienceDaily
Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love – Journal of Neurophysiology