It seems the old adage that love is like a drug is more than just fodder for pop music—it’s actually true. Love can make you feel as high as a kite and when it goes wrong, it can drag you to lows you never thought you’d experience. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason for that.
The study comes out of Stanford University. Admittedly, it was relatively small and included only 15 students. The eight women and seven men, all of whom were in relationships at the time, were shown photos of their respective partners while also zapping them with mild electrical shocks on their palms. Their brains were then scanned with an MRI machine and the participants were asked to rate their pain.
Seeing the pictures reduced pain. Researchers realized that seeing a picture of the participant’s partner made them rate the pain of the shocks they received lower than when they were looking at nothing at all, meaning the love they had for their S.O. acted as a bit of an analgesic. Pretty sweet, right?
But that’s not all! The area of the brain that lit up on the MRI machine during the experience is the same one that lights up when you’re smoking crack cocaine or doing heroin. Whaaat? This allowed participants to experience a 12% reduction rate in severe pain and a 45% reduction rate in moderate pain. Pretty sweet—and thankfully not as life-destroying as actual drugs.
It’s all about the love-induced analgesia. Study co-author Jarred Younger explained, “Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. It appears to involve more primitive aspects of the brain, activating deep structures that may block pain at a spinal level: similar to how opioid analgesics work. One of the key sites for love-induced analgesia is the nucleus accumbens, a key reward addiction center for opioids, cocaine and other drugs of abuse. The region tells the brain that you really need to keep doing this.” That’s great and all, but we all know how much it sucks when it ends.
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