The Science of Love: Romance Uses Same Parts of the Brain as Cocaine, Pain Avoidance

Love uses parts of the brain that also protect against pain, say doctors.

Oct. 27, 2010 — -- Love, as most people know, is anything but simple.

Scholars, poets, and just plain folks have pondered the meaning and mystery of love for thousands of years, but every definition seems lacking. For a decade now, scientists have focused one of their most powerful instruments on the human brain, seeking to understand the role that love plays in our lives.

Brain scans allow them to see which parts of the brain light up when a person just sees a photo of a loved one, professes deep love for another, or thinks about a relationship that has endured for decades. Neuroscientists around the world have learned much about the cognitive role of love, and how love affects different parts of the brain, so some real knowledge is being gained, but no one so far has claimed total victory. Sometimes, facts just deepen the mystery.

Consider these recent findings:

Scientists have determined that "the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain," according to Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has been studying love for 30 years.

"Every type of love (romantic, maternal, companionable) embraces its own brain complexity" according to psychologist and neurologist Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University, lead author of a study in the current issue of the International Society for Sexual Medicine.

Falling in love elicits the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, according to many researchers, and it increases dopamine, a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation.

The brains of new mothers begin growing right after giving birth, especially among mothers who profess the deepest love for their offspring, according to neuroscientist Pilyoung Kim of the National Institute of Mental Health, lead author of a study in the current issue of Behavioral Neuroscience. Gray matter increased by a "small but significant amount in various parts of the brain."

And Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, has found that "people in long term relationships who report they are still very much in love showed activity in the same area of the brain activated during early-stage romantic love." In other words, it's possible to keep the fire burning.

Love, Pain and Cocaine

Of course, some of the findings aren't all that romantic. Love, according to various studies, is the driving force that compels us to find a mate, reproduce, and thus help our species survive. It's the same thing that drives all mammals, and it's a key part of our evolutionary history.

Brain scans of lovers revealed activity in the area of the brain associated with pair-bonding in prairie voles, for example, so the driving force of love may not be exclusively human. Voles also showed a 50 percent increase in dopamine activity when they spotted a potential mate, leading Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, to speculate that "all mammals may feel attraction to specific partners, and some of the same brain systems are involved."

Sometimes, science is a serendipitous process. Several years ago, Stony Brook's Aron, a highly regarded expert on love, was chatting with Sean Mackey of Stanford University, an expert in the research of pain, when they discovered common ground.

"Art was talking about love," said Mackey, who was working on a paper that appears in the current issue of the journal PLoS ONE. "I was talking about pain. He was talking about the brain systems involved with love. I was talking about the brain systems involved with pain. We realized there was this tremendous overlapping system. We started wondering, is it possible that the two modulate each other?"

The scientists posted fliers around the Stanford campus, asking for volunteers among people who were in the "first phase of intensive love."

A line formed outside Mackey's office immediately.

"It was clearly the easiest study the pain center at Stanford has ever recruited for," he said. "When you're in love you want to tell everybody about it."

That research led to this conclusion:

Passionate love can provide powerful relief from pain, similar to cocaine.