Your mind is not your own; your heart sweats, your body shakes, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, your throat is tight, you can’t breathe…

loveandyourbrain_postDo these symptoms sound familiar? Do you think they signal a panic attack? Psychosis? Heroin withdrawal? Perhaps the treatment itself will reveal the malady: Another kiss is all you need. A kiss? But of course! The sickness is “Addiction to Love” – Robert Palmer style. Who hasn’t felt almost every sensation Palmer describes during those moments when love turns to choking anxiety? Popular music–even “oldies” like this– seems to have a better grasp of love’s radical power than psychiatry or science. Whether through modern pop hits, or the blistering torch songs of whisky-throated divas, or the first-ever romantic ballads penned by wandering troubadours during the middle ages, music has always exposed love’s essence – as well as its capacity to drive us to unfathomable acts of sacrifice, violence and self-destruction.

Now, thanks to new brain imagining studies of people in love, scientists’ understanding of love has begun to catch up with artists’. Research confirms what impassioned lovers have long suspected: the “many splendored thing” zaps the human brain at a deep, primitive level, to the extent that terms like “love addiction,” “lovesickness” and “love crazed” can no longer be regarded as mere metaphors. Instead, they describe the actual nature of the human brain’s response to that pure and potent drug we call love.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleagues Arthur Aron and Lucy Brown conducted a series of studies of people in love, consisting of 3 groups of subjects: those newly in love, those who had been recently dumped by someone they loved, and those who claimed to be still in love with their mate of many years. All were exposed to photos of their loved one and brain-scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results demonstrated that love is a motivational system more than an emotion. It lives in our brains in distinct areas of heightened activity, driving our thoughts and actions. This is your brain on love:

Newly In Love

Subjects who were “in love” showed activation “like fireworks” in the part of the primitive brain where unconscious processes, cravings, and desires reside. This area is part of our reward system where the neurotransmitter dopamine is made and sprayed to nearby cells. The area is below the area of cognitive processing; deeper and more primitive than the emotional brain. Most interestingly, it’s the same area that produces the rush from doing cocaine.

Activation in this area seems to explain the obsessive quality of being in love: why we can’t stop thinking of the person; why we feel euphoria one moment, despair the next. It explains why being in love is a state of actual physical and emotional dependence, motivating us to do anything to be with the person who charges up this brain “hot spot.”

Love really does seem to have all the properties of substance addiction: tolerance (needing more and more of him/her); withdrawal (during a break-up or separation); and relapse (going back to him/her despite knowing he/she’s not good for you.)

Being Dumped

Those who had been left by a lover showed activation in the same regions as those in the throes of intense romantic love. In addition, more activity was found in the region associated with physical pain, psychic pain, and obsessive thinking, suggesting that obsession gets worse when you have been rejected. The brain system for wanting, motivation, and focus also becomes more active when you can’t get or keep what you want – as do areas for risk- taking and calculating gains and losses. One might say that people who have been dumped are more likely to gamble with their emotions and take risky action for the sake of regaining what they’ve lost. Even stalking would be an expression of high activation in this brain region.

Because these areas are deeper and more primitive than our logic centers, they seem to pack a harder punch. So you might reason that the temptation to call, drive by, send email, or show up at his/her office is self-sabotaging, foolish, or even dangerous – yet you may do it anyway because your higher mind saying “don’t!” doesn’t motivate you as powerfully as your more primitive brain demanding, “do it!”

Still In Love After All These Years

fMRI results of subjects claiming to be in love after as long as 25 years showed heightened activity in the same brain regions as those who were newly in love. In addition, those in long-term relationships showed activation in brain regions associated with feelings of calmness and pain suppression, as well as areas associated in animal studies with pair-bonding or social affiliation. This is perhaps the most hopeful of the studies, for it suggest that the heart-pounding, tummy-turning excitement of love doesn’t always pale as the years pass.

The Moral of the Story

Science may be able to tell us what occurs in our brain when we fall in love, as we live with love, or when love fails us – but brain scans don’t tell us how to love, or how to soothe our bereaved souls when love is lost. To care for ourselves when love seems to drive us mad, we may still need to rely on the artists and philosophers who’ve grappled with passion throughout the ages. Whether in Proust or Palmer, Gershwin or Garcia Marquez, Shakespeare or Shinedown, we can find companions and a richness of experience to smooth our passage through that timeless and consuming fever we call love.