Now for some new and interesting information about how human love works. This is something that even the most science based of us have a hard time rationally explaining. There is simply more to love than chemicals and hormones isn’t there? (If we had an explanation, it wouldn’t make it any less special, you science haters out there).
Although I do agree that we do not have a real explanation for the sensations of love (maintaining the mystery I guess), we will look at two new studies below that show the power of love itself. Namely, the effect is has on our brain, and how it can relieve pain.
Crazy In Love
The first study we are going to look at outlines how love affects parts of the brain. Results revealed when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine (makes you happy), oxytocin (painkiller), adrenaline (gets you all flushed and breathing heavy) and vasopression.
Have you ever felt more attractive or inspired after falling in love? The study also found that the love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image.
Not only that, but this passionate expression of neurotransmitters and chemicals happens in about a fifth of a second. As far as the biochemical response to falling in love goes, you can become hopelessly enamored with that special someone in the less time than it takes you to blink your eye (200 milliseconds vs. between 300 and 400 milliseconds).
The study also shows different parts of the brain fall for love. For example, unconditional love, such as that between a mother and a child, is sparked by the common and different brain areas, including the middle of the brain. Passionate love is sparked by the reward part of the brain, and also associative cognitive brain areas that have higher-order cognitive functions, such as body image.
This of course has implications for our understanding of the neurology that goes along with being in love. The same areas of the brain that can be affected positively from love can also lead to striking depression. “Hey, you’re not just heart-sick, your brain’s messed up!”
Hurts So Good
The science has also pointed to the pain relieving qualities of amour. Unfortunately, the reporting on our next study has gotten it wrong (as we will see). The headline is “Love Provides Pain Relief Similar to Cocaine”, but actually looking at the study, this is not the case. However, the basis for this claim is sound:
“It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain,” said Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and one of the study’s authors. Aron has been studying love for 30 years. “When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation in the reward area of the brain — the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money.
The results for this pain study were as follows:
- Researchers recruited 15 undergraduates (eight women and seven men) for the study.
- Each was asked to bring in photos of their beloved and photos of an equally attractive acquaintance.
- The researchers then successively flashed the pictures before the subjects, while heating up a computer-controlled thermal stimulator placed in the palm of their hand to cause mild pain. At the same time, their brains were scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine.
- The undergraduates were also tested for levels of pain relief while being distracted with word-association tasks such as: “Think of sports that don’t involve balls.” Scientific evidence has shown in the past that distraction causes pain relief, and researchers wanted to make sure that love was not just working as a distraction from pain.
Results showed that both love and distraction did equally reduce pain, and at much higher levels than by concentrating on the photo of the attractive acquaintance, but interestingly the two methods of pain reduction used very different brain pathways.
Again, although the pain relief may have acted along some of the same pathways as illicit drugs, they did not have the same sort of pain relief that, for example opiates, could produce. The results showed that the pain relief was only equal to cognitive distraction. Like trying to ignore a paper cut by swearing (swearing is also shown to provide minor pain relief). This study does not provide evidence that you could replace morphine with an orgy, but it does give in insight into where the warm, glowing, and numb feeling of love may come from.
Many different parts of our brain are involved in creating this rapid rapture response, and it seems to be that there are physiological benefits to deep connections with others. There does seem to be a legitimate scientific basis for love; no matter if we don’t realize it when we’re all falling in love in 200 milliseconds and doped up on brain cocaine.