Love is the drug and I need to score
It’s long been known that love acts as an intoxicant. As I look through my iTunes playlist, I find Fiona Apple telling me she wants me like a drug, Roxy Music needing to score some love, a girlshapedlovedrug messing with Gomez’s mind, and Cypress Hill loving Mary Jane. However, scientists have recently discovered what kind of drug it resembles: a morphine-like analgesic.
A study published in PLOS has shown that thoughts about one’s romantic partner has a significant painkiller effect in people in passionate intense love. Participants who were enrolled were undergrad students who were in their first 9 months of a relationship and self-reported to be in intense love, which was confirmed with a score of >90 on the Passionate Love Scale (how this scale works, I don’t really know). A heat block was strapped to their left hand, then “To determine temperatures used for moderate-pain and high-pain heat, participants were exposed to 15-second heat blocks, starting at 40 degrees Celsius (a non-painful temperature). Following each heat block, participants were asked to report the degree of pain on an 11-point visual scale (0 = no pain at all, 10 = worst pain imaginable). Each successive heat block was increased by 1 degree Celsius, until the participant reached their 10/10 (maximum) pain score. Then, the lower temperatures were retested to verify what temperatures elicited 4/10 (moderate) and 7/10 (high) pain.”
While being subjected to moderate and high pain, they were then shown either a picture of their beloved, an aquaintance of the same attractiveness or given a word-association task to distract them from the pain. During this, they measured brain activity using a functional MRI (which looks at which parts of the brain are active) and subjective pain ratings from the participant.
They found participants distraction with the word game or thinking about their romantic partner both showed a decrease in pain perception, compared with those just thinking about acquaintences. But when they looked at the fMRI data, the scientists saw completely different patterns, which showed that they were working through different pathways in the brain. As opposed to the higher cortical activity seen in the distracted group, the romantic group had increased activity in the reward pathways of the brain; those associated with winning a big sum of money or opioid drugs like morphine.
My dearest analgesic (Photo by Thomas Tu)
So many lovely questions still remain: what is the pharmokinetic half-life of love in the bloodstream (justifying 7-year itch?)? What happens in the brain during withdrawl (doth absence make the heart grow fonder?)? Can you could make it into a pill? What I didn’t know before this is that there’s an entire field dedicated to love and its effects on the brain. Maybe one day we will be able to isolate love in a test tube.
Younger, J., Aron, A., Parke, S., Chatterjee, N., & Mackey, S. (2010). Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013309