March 11, 2014

Love You Like Crazy: The Effects of Passionate Love on the Brain

Guest blogger Alia Wilhelm explores the interesting relationship that exists between love, addiction and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

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The brain does some crazy things when a person falls in love

The brain does some crazy things when a person falls in love

Many people feel unable to control their hearts’ desires. They see themselves as having fallen prey to the intractable frenzy of the emotions inside of them – utterly helpless and completely confused.

As it turns out, this view might not be completely wrong. Passionate love – the kind of love we associate with romance and not platonic companionate love – might be madness, misery and mystery all in one, but it is also a physical state. It may be an emotional condition, but it is certainly also biological and chemical.

In a study conducted in 1999, Italian psychiatrist Dr. Donatella Marazziti found that people who proclaimed to have recently fallen in love had similar levels of serotonin in their blood as patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood, sleep and appetite, was found in higher quantities in individuals who did not have the anxiety disorder and had not recently fallen in love.

It is interesting to note the similarity in serotonin levels between those who were lovesick and those with an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. This finding emphasizes the obsessive component of romantic love, especially at its beginning. So when a couple finds it impossible to stop thinking about each other, is it really their fault? Or is this distracting, totally consuming aspect of love hardwired in all of us? Does love really take control of our minds, the way we sometimes say it does?

That’s not where the chemical chaos ends. Love also has more direct effects on the brain.

In 2000, scientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to track blood oxygen levels in the brain and made some very important discoveries concerning love.

Bartels and Zeki chose participants who scored high on a scale measuring passionate love and then showed volunteers four similar photographs. Women were shown pictures of their boyfriends, as well as three male friends with whom they were close. Men were shown photos of their girlfriends, as well as three female friends with whom they were close. All participants had known the people in photographs for roughly the same amount of time.

Brain scan images showed that certain parts of the brain became activated when women and men who were in love viewed the pictures of their significant others. This did not happen when they looked at photographs of their friends. Brain activity increased in the areas associated with euphoria and reward. Similarly there was less activity in locales of the brain associated with distress, depression and critical thought.

This last finding – namely that the passion associated with early romantic love lowers activity in the part of the brain related to critical thought – may shed light on whether love really does make a person… well, stupid.

A person who is love-smitten will often make choices that will seem illogical to others, such as prioritizing the object of their affection above work, friends and family, no matter what the trade-offs are.

But the fMRI study also discovered that the part of brain associated with addiction was activated when participants were viewing pictures of the people they were in love with. This area is comprised of a very high concentration of dopamine receptors, a neurotransmitter which, among other things, is related to addiction. And certainly it is true that love and addiction bear some important similarities. At their very core they are both somewhat characterized by cravings and withdrawal.

As writer Kelly Irvin says, “In many ways, the brain scan studies show that the maddening feelings of love are essentially a major mental-health crisis. The chemical storm of brain changes it causes are strikingly similar to drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Love really does make us crazy.”

And so it does. Passionate love, for the time that it lasts, makes us obsessive. It makes us less logical. It can turn us into neurotic addicts, waiting to get our fix so that we can function properly again. And yet it is a state many of us wait our whole lives to be in–because despite the pain that comes with it, it can also be very fulfilling.

Alia Wilhelm is a student at Northwestern University where she studies Journalism and Psychology.