Every year on Valentine’s Day, people around the world become besotted with all things red and cutesy in celebration of that age-old emotion, love.
Truthfully, most of the human race search for another human being to love, and being in love can make you feel incredibly alive, confident and happy with the world. But it turns out that not everything’s positive about the experience of love.
The Up Side
Being in love has real, scientific health benefits in several areas, including pain relief, better cardiovascular health, lower stress levels, and blood pressure. Why, then, do the terms “lovesick” and “smitten” exist? Do they perhaps point to a negative side to being in love?
Love Can Be An Addiction
Many scientists are now likening the feeling of attachment to addiction in many ways due to neurological mechanisms involved in the feeling of being in love. And in fact, science says that the effects of love on the brain are similar to those of cocaine addiction.
As you might know, when we’re in love, our brains release dopamine. This neurotransmitter is nicknamed “the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” hormone because it’s released during pleasurable experiences.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D. is a biological anthropologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana. She led an experiment that is now famous. It illustrated that neurologically, love and addiction activate the same reward mechanisms and the same brain circuits.
For the study, 15 participates who said they were deeply in love were shown images of lovers who had rejected them. Simultaneously, researchers scanned the participant’s brains using functional MRI scan imaging.
High brain activity was found in areas associated with various things, including cocaine addiction. “Activation of areas involved in cocaine addiction may help explain the obsessive behaviors associated with rejection in love,” wrote Fisher and her colleagues.
Some of the behaviors they included were “mood swings, craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotional dependence, personality changes, risk-taking, and loss of self-control.” Some researchers now believe that love addiction should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alongside other behavioral addictions, including “gambling disorder, sex-addiction, compulsive buying,” as well as addictions to work, exercise, work, or to technology. Others disagree.
We’re all on the addiction spectrum
Brian Earp and colleagues from the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, write, “[E]veryone who loves is on a spectrum of addictive conditions.”[B]eing addicted to another person is not an illness but simply the result of a fundamental human capacity that can sometimes be exercised to excess.” Which is when treatment is required.
Earp et al say: “There is now abundant behavioral, neurochemical, and neuroimaging evidence to support the claim that love is (or at least that it can be) an addiction, in much the same way that chronic drug-seeking behavior can be termed an addiction.” They concluded: “No matter how we interpret this evidence, we should conclude that people whose lives are negatively impacted by love ought to be offered support and treatment opportunities analogous to those that we extend to substance abusers.”