“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” – Sophocles
“To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia.” – H.L. Mencken
“Sometimes love is stronger than a man’s convictions.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
“Loves makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” – Zora Neale Hurston
So, What is Love?
Romantic love, next to whatever happens after we die, has always been one of mankind’s greatest mysteries. LOVE is difficult to define, differs from person to person, yet somehow is easy for all to recognize. You sure know when it hits you – not unlike the flu. For eons men and woman have philosophized about what love is, how it occurs, and why it’s necessary, rarely coming up with anything more useful than really cool comments like, “Love is friendship set on fire.” Such sentiments make good song lyrics and poetry, but are not much help from a psychotherapy perspective. Nevertheless, despite centuries of vain attempts to fully define it, there is no denying that love exists, and that it’s as natural and essential to most human beings as breathing, eating, and sleeping.
Traditionally, love is seen as living in the heart and many people claim to experience the emotion of love within their chest, which is understandable as our hearts typically beat faster when we deeply fantasize about or encounter a romantic partner. In reality, however, the term “heart” is more a metaphor for something that is an essential part of our very human core. Love is within us. We feel it, we enjoy it, and we ache both for it and from it. We sometimes think that we can’t live without it. It makes grownups act like teenagers, and teenagers act like bigger idiots than usual. We chase it, we crave it, we lie, cheat, and steal for it, we adore it, and we pen epic poems about it. But seem to know barely anything about it.
Or do we?
Love, Attachment, and the Brain
Owing a huge debt to modern science, we can now unequivocally say that love, in the biological sense, lives not in our hearts but in our brains. And when I say “brain,” I actually do mean the blood and guts organ. In fact, and somewhat amazingly, we even know where in the brain this wonderfully ephemeral emotion resides. We know this because functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans can be used to measure activity within the human brain. When part of the brain is activated (by a thought, a movement, a drug, an emotion, etc.), blood flow to that region is increased and fMRI scans clearly show where in the brain this occurs. The fMRI allows scientists to track not only which parts of the brain are stimulated when we experience a particular emotion, but also the degree of brain activation, which may in some way allow us to see how much love one feels or does not feel when presented with images of a particular person or situation. Today, with the use of neurobiological evaluation, monitoring and mapping things like sexual arousal and romantic love is, unbelievably, a relatively straightforward endeavor.
Not surprisingly, this “brain mapping” process has piqued the interest of a whole lot of researchers. In one study, i published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers tracked the brain activity of 15 people (10 women and 5 men) who self-reported that they were currently “intensely in love,” and had been for anywhere from 1 to 17 months. The researchers compared the subjects’ brain activity as they viewed (interspersed with a distraction-attention task), photographs of their beloved, along with photographs of a familiar but not beloved person. The results very clearly showed that:
- Intense romantic love is associated with activation of dopamine-rich regions in the brain, such as the striatum. (The striatum includes the nucleus accumbens, also known as the brain’s “pleasure center.”)
- Intense romantic love also activates regions of the brain associated with motivation to acquire a reward, primarily the insula, which “gives value” to pleasurable, life-sustaining activities (to make sure we continue to engage in them).
Based on these findings, this research team clearly concluded that romantic love is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion. In other words, individuals who are “in love” are strongly motivated to be with their beloved because simply being with that person provides a high level of neurological reward, or, in simple terms, because it feels good.
Another study, this one published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, took things one step further, linking sexual desire to romantic love. ii This particular study analyzed the results from 20 separate fMRI trials, each of which examined brain activity while subjects were engaged in tasks like viewing pornographic photos and also viewing photos of their significant others. After pooling this data, the authors of the study were able to “map” exactly where and how both sexual desire and romantic love stimulate the brain. As it turns out, sexual desire and romantic love both activate the striatum, with romantic love also activating the insula. Thus, the striatum is responsible for initial attraction and sexual desire, while the insula is responsible for transforming that desire into love. In other words, love is co-created by and “lives within” the striatum and the insula.
Love is the Crack Cocaine of Emotions
Of great interest to researchers and clinicians alike is the fact that the striatum and insula are also the parts of the brain most directly associated with the formation and maintenance of addiction. The same process of anticipation, craving, and reward upon connection that occurs with love also occurs with addiction. As Concordia University Professor Jim Pfaus, co-author of the study linking sexual desire and love, states, “Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs.” iii
The fascinating and evolving discovery that romantic love and substance (cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, etc.) or behavioral addictions (gambling, sex, spending, etc.) share the same neurobiological motivation and activation systems may help to explain the strength of obsessive behaviors in certain rejection-sensitive lovelorn individuals, as cross-culturally we see high rates of “love-related” stalking, homicide, suicide, and clinical depression. iv In a simplistic way, romantic love could be viewed as a constructive form of addiction (much like disciplined, regular exercise for some, or a passionate and creative relationship to work for others) when that love is returned. Yet love can also look like a destructive form of addiction – with out-of-control behavior and negative consequences – when that love is rejected, unavailable, or inconsistent.
This is not to say that the experience of love is in any way pathological or that everyone who falls in love is “clinically addicted” to the object of his or her affection. For most of us the process of falling in love is healthy, joyful, and life affirming – not to mention completely necessary to the survival of our species. By the way, we get hungry, crave food, and eat regularly for very similar reasons (survival of the individual/species), and clearly not everyone who gets hungry or enjoys food has an eating disorder. Similarly, not everyone who drinks alcohol or uses drugs recreationally is an alcoholic or addict. Addiction does occur, however, when the individual repeatedly loses control over his/her behavior choices and those experiences directly lead to negative life consequences.
So What is Addiction to Love?
This distinction between healthy behavioral choices and self-destructive/addictive ones is especially important when talking about love or romance addiction. As nearly all of us discover by age 25 or earlier, even healthy love relationships can appear enmeshed, obsessive, or “addictive” in the early stages of limerence (the involuntary state of mind that occurs with intense romantic attraction), when the other person’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and activities seem like the most important thing on earth. Thus the early, undifferentiated, intense stage of a new romantic relationship (that we now know as a neurobiological process) absolutely creates an emotional state of feeling “high” or “in love” that in essence pushes us toward being with the person we desire. In healthy relationships, this carefully synchronized play of emotions pulls us toward the slow but steady development of mature intimacy that characterizes longer term, lasting love.
Unfortunately, some less emotionally healthy individuals – those who suffer from social anxiety, depression, maladaptive attachment, personality challenges, childhood trauma, and similar issues – can get “hooked,” if you will, on the bio-emotional high of budding romance or limerence. These people can and do abuse the natural, appropriate excitement and arousal of limerence as a way to escape or self-medicate life’s stressors and intolerable emotions. Often intimacy-phobic, yet longing for connection as we all do, these folks repeat the early stages of romantic love over and over again with different individuals, believing this transitory intensity to be the real thing rather than a stage in the progression toward mature attachment or intimacy. When an individual seeks an experientially based neurochemical high over and over in this way, even when he or she wishes to stop and when that behavior creates negative life consequences (relationship issues, trouble at work, ever deepening anxiety and depression, etc.), that person’s behavior qualifies, in a clinical sense, as “love addiction.” The individual’s treatment will require traditional psychodynamic psychotherapies combined with cognitive behavioral therapies designed to help that person recognize the cues that leave him/her wanting to stay, run, avoid, and obsess.
iA. Aron, H. Fisher, D. Mashek, G. Strong, H. Li, and L. Brown, “Reward, Motivation and Emotion Systems Associated with Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love,” Journal of Neurophysiology (2005) 93 : 327-337.
iiJ.G. Pfaus, T.E. Kippin, G.A. Coria-Avila, H. Gelez, V.M. Afonso, N. Ismail, and M. Parada, “Who, What, Where, When (and Maybe Even Why)? How the Experience of Sexual Reward Connects Sexual Desire, Preference, and Performance,” Arch Sex Behav (2012) 41(1) : 31-62.
iiiScience Daily, I Want to Know Where Love Is: First Brain Map of Love and Desire, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120620101011.htm (Jun 20, 2012).
ivH. Fisher, L.L. Brown, A. Aron, G. Strong, and D. Mashek, “Reward, Addiction and Emotional Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love,” Journal of Neurophysiology (2010) 104 : 51-60.