Friday, 30 November 2012

Is love a drug?

The heady rush of intense romantic love is, perhaps, a defining aspect of what is to be a human being. Psychologists named this feeling “limerance” in the 1970s, and by the 1980s they were measuring it using questionnaires with exciting sounding names like the “Passionate Love Scale”. Still, the 2000s arrived and several important psychological questions around the nature of romantic love still remained unanswered. Should love best be thought of as an emotion in its own right? What is the relationship between romantic love and sex? And is love really a drug, as Roxy Music suggested in their 1975 hit single?

In 2005, psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues decided to delve into these interesting issues. 17 young men and women who had recently fallen in love and were in a relationship responded to a newspaper advertisement. Each provided a photograph of their beloved and, to provide a point of comparison, a second photograph portraying a friend of the same age and sex. One by one, the volunteers were inserted, torpedo-like, into an fMRI machine. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetization of atoms in the body to create images of the brain and other internal organs. Functional MRI (fMRI) is a further refinement that can measure changing activity over time by detecting increased amounts of oxygen in the blood.

While having their brains scanned the volunteers viewed their photographs through an angled mirror. The researchers compared the brain scan images showing parts of the brain “lighting up” for the beloveds’ photographs with the friends’ photographs. This showed which brain regions became active in response to intense romantic love, over and above friendship. The findings were intriguing.

Romantic love activated a number of well-known emotional areas of the brain, namely the caudate nucleus, ventral tegmental area, insular cortex and cingulate cortex. There was no evidence of any specialised or unique brain system for love, which tells us that love is probably not an individual emotion in its own right. Instead, romantic love is better thought of as an accumulation of motivations and emotions, described by the researchers as a “goal-directed emotional state”. In other words, love is a mind-set that causes the experience of other more fundamental emotions like euphoria. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; romantic love directs us towards the goal of obtaining a partner for reproductive purposes, and finding one’s partner is rewarded by feelings of extreme emotional pleasure. Having said that, next time you are smooching your lover, choose you words carefully. Whispering how intense a goal-directed emotional state they set-off in you isn’t particularly romantic!

Recording activation in the caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental areas of the brain is interesting because these are key parts of the brain’s reward pathways. These pathways respond to pleasurable stimuli like eating chocolate, receiving money or experiencing an intense “high” from drugs like cocaine. The objective demonstration of activation of the brain’s same reward pathways by romantic love and drugs provides a scientific backing for the poetic idea of love being a very potent drug. Bryan Ferry was right!

And what of the age-old question of the relationship between love and sex? On the whole, the brain areas activated by romantic love were different to those activated during sexual arousal. We know this thanks to a 2002 study of 14 young men asked to watch an erotic video while undergoing an fMRI scan. At the same time, a strategically positioned electrical “cuff” verified physical signs of sexual arousal. The brain areas activated were the visual areas, the insula, the temporal and cingulate gyri, the caudate and the putamen. Because the brain regions activated for romantic love and sexual arousal were different, this shows that love and sex are distinct entities. More profoundly, the findings provide a scientific validation for the feeling of sexual desire in the absence of romantic love, otherwise known as “lust”. 

Rarely does one scientific study shine a light on so many quintessential issues. The patterns of brain activation in lovers viewing pictures of their darlings validate the lyrical concept of love being like a drug. In so doing, they underline the powerful hold romantic love can exert on people. Considering love as apart from lust informs how, as people age and sexual activity lessens, fulfilling long-term romantic relationships still evolve and thrive. Coming to think of romantic love not as one single emotion but as an accumulation of motivations and emotions provides insights into the complexity of love and hints at why humans remain inherently fascinated by it. This fascination is reflected in the portrayal of romantic love in music and the arts since time immemorial. And now, at last, science has joined the party.

The reference to the full paper describing this study is included below. If you access it from a library that subscribes to the journal you will be able to download the pdf file containing the article for free. If not, the link contains an e-mail address for one of the authors, Lucy L Brown. If you contact Dr Brown and ask very politely I’m sure she would send you a pdf copy of the paper for free.

Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher, Debra J. Mashek, Greg Strong, Haifang Li and Lucy L. Brown (2005). Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love. Journal of Neurophysiology 94, 327-337. Link.


  1. Yes, love is like a drug, if people are addicted means they can't come out these, these is dangerous than medicine

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  5. This showed which brain regions became active in response to intense romantic love, over and above friendship. The findings were intriguing. Weedies

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  7. I agree with this, I'm sure my psychologists in Edmonton would say the same thing. I think that people have that need to be needed feeling about them.


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