Love is as good as cocaine

Being in love is as good a painkiller as cocaine, according to a study.

“It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain,” said Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at State University of New York.

“When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation in the reward area of the brain – the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money.”

Apparently, the idea for the research arose when Aron met Stanford‘s Sean Mackey for the first time at a conference and discovered that one was an expert on love, and the other on pain.

But rather than having the obvious conversation – and what fun it might have led to! – they instead started discussing whether love might have an analgesic effect, and decided to follow it up.

Along with postdoctoral scholar Jarred Younger, they started examining the brain images of undergraduates who claimed to be in the first throes of intense love.

“We posted fliers around Stanford University and within hours we had undergrads banging on our door,” says Mackey. The fliers asked for couples who were in the first nine months of a romantic relationship.

“It was clearly the easiest study the pain center at Stanford has ever recruited for,” Mackey says. “When you’re in love you want to tell everybody about it.”

Eight women and seven men were asked to bring in photos of their beloved and photos of an equally attractive acquaintance; we bet that caused a few first tiffs.

The researchers then flashed the two pictures at them while burning their hands. (They describe this as heating with a computer-controlled thermal stimulator, but we know what they mean). At the same time, their brains were scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine.

The results showed that love did reduce pain, and by much more than the photo of the attractive acquaintance, but the two methods of pain reduction used very different brain pathways.

“With the distraction test, the brain pathways leading to pain relief were mostly cognitive,” Younger said. “The reduction of pain was associated with higher, cortical parts of the brain. Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. 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.”

Here at TechEye we always like to test these things for ourselves, so we grabbed a canoodling couple from the park this afternoon and hit them with hammers. There must be some truth in the Stanford study, because they didn’t complain for very long.

We then did the same to the publisher’s secretary and the post boy – much less messy, as they were already in the bathroom. By contrast, they got pretty cross; and it was unfortunate that they had razor blades.