In the past I have written about the similarities between love and chemical addiction.
When an intense romantic love relationship ends badly, our brain chemistry responds with activity in areas associated with impulsive, reckless or obsessive behaviours.
A new study out of Stanford University has shown a flip side to this coin—romantic love can act as a powerful pain killer similar to morphine in its effectiveness.
Not only can our body chemistry act as though we’re addicted, but like a drug, love can block physical pain.
In this small study, 15 male and female university students involved in the early stages of a love relationship were shown photos of their partner while receiving mild doses of pain through a heat probe on their hand.
Meanwhile, researchers took functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains.
Feelings of love triggered by a photo of the volunteer’s partner acted as a powerful pain reliever–targeting the reward system of the brain in the same way as morphine, cocaine or other opioid drugs by activating the brain’s dopamine pathways.
This study intentionally focused on the effects of the early, passionate stage of love rather than on more mature love relationships.
It was hoped participants would be experiencing the feelings associated with new love—feelings of euphoria, increased energy, obsessive thinking of and craving the presence of their loved one.
This is the stage of romantic love often likened to an addiction and which scientists believe may involve similar brain reactions.
Researchers compared results against what happened when participants were shown a picture of an attractive acquaintance rather than their love, but this did not have the same effect.
In addition, study participants were given mental challenges such as thinking of non-ball sports as a means of distracting themselves from pain—to ensure that love was not simply working as a distraction. Again, although these distraction techniques did have some pain relieving effect, they acted on very different brain pathways than love.
The dopamine reaction spurred by the photo of a beloved was thought to involve deeper, more primitive brain structures —blocking pain at a spinal level in the same way as opioid pain relieving medications.
More study would need to be done to determine the length and threshold of effectiveness of love on pain, but it is certainly interesting to learn that at least the early intense period of a romantic relationship does activate similar brain chemistry as some pharmaceuticals, proving the old cliché that love is indeed a drug.