Today in science: Is love really a drug?
We all know the phrase “love is a drug” — there’s even that Anne Hathaway/Jake Gyllenhaal movie Love & Other Drugs. There are also (of course) the zillions of pop songs that make reference to love as a drug, and the reality that any of us who have experienced the feelings of love would likely equate love feelings to high feelings: Love gives you a rush, it gives you butterflies in your stomach, it makes you feel lighter than air. Welllllll, turns out there’s some nifty science backing all this up. Apparently, that high that love gives you is actually incredibly similar to a high you can get on drugs.
At a 92Y event, psychologist JoAnn Deak spoke about the striking similarities between the chemical mechanisms that are activated when you’re pretty much a heart-eyed emoji and when you’re. . . well, on drugs. “We now know that the chemical changes in parts of the brain when you’re in love are equal to that of heroin doses or high cocaine doses, so you kind of know,” she said during the talk. “If you have to ask if you’re in love, you’re not.”
It sounds pretty wild, but Deak isn’t the only expert in the field who views love to be an actual drug. After all, pretty much anything that may feel good — love, sex, eating delicious foods, having a stiff drink — is a result of the release of dopamine, the same hormone that is released when you take cocaine or heroin. But does dopamine really connect these things together in such a black-and-white way?
Essentially, as biological anthropologist Helen Fisher explained to The Daily Beast, smoochy-smoochy romance initiates the brain’s “reward system.” “The reward system is the wanting system,” she explained. “It becomes activated when you fall madly in love.”
Fisher has extensively researched this subject and how love affects the brain, and one of her studies in particular has found that looking at a photograph of a person you love lights up that rewards system, the same area of the brain that would light up if you were to take cocaine or have an orgasm. “If you look at a photo of your sweetheart, you’ll find the area where dopamine is manufactured — the ventral tegmental area — becomes quite active,” she told The Daily Beast.
In fact, love may seem modern, but is a primitive thing indeed. “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,” Jarred Younger, lead author of a study surrounding love and neural reward systems, told The Guardian after the publication of his study in 2010. “One of the key sites for love-induced analgesia is the nucleus accumbens, a key reward addiction centre for opioids, cocaine and other drugs of abuse. The region tells the brain that you really need to keep doing this.”
Point being, the reason love feels so good is because it’s a mating drive. Much like quenching hunger or thirst, finding love is something we are biologically driven to do. It’s called a “natural addiction.” The flip side of the feelings that make love so wonderful, are what make some love dysfunctional. There are valleys to the peaks, just like with any other addiction. Fisher explained. “It is my guess that there are more people in jail from various love addictions than there are from heroin addiction,” she told The Daily Beast. “If you’re in love and are rejected, [a love addict] may kill, . . . slip into a clinical depression, [or] maybe start stalking.” (Naturally, though, love can and often does go much better than that, leaving to happy lives and families.)
However, others don’t believe it’s accurate to call love a drug. As Dr. Joe Herbert, emeritus professor of neuroscience at Cambridge, explained to The Daily Beast:
In fact, some scientists believe brain scans are too simplistic in general. “It’s way too facile to infer human subjective experience in much detail from brain scans,” psychiatrist and lecturer at Yale’s School of Medicine Dr. Sally Satel told The Daily Beast. “The very fact that love and cocaine are also subjectively different in so many important ways, simply shows that there’s a hell of lot more to the story than dopamine.”
So is love really a drug? It sounds like it might depend on who you ask — though I bet if you ask someone currently in love they’d hit you back with a resounding, “yes!” Enjoy Deak’s full talk below.
[Image via Shutterstock]