Love is the Drug

Leah Bonnell's picture

Stitched up tight can't shake free

Love is the drug got a hook on me

Oh catch that buzz, love is the drug I'm thinking of

Oh can't you see love is the drug for me.

-Roxy Music, “Love is the Drug”

 

            Countless artists have spent their lives describing the feeling of love- the complex and often intense emotion many of us have felt. But, what is love? A scientist today would most likely answer that love is a combination of certain neurotransmitters, including as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. While this idea might not sound exceptionally romantic, scientists believe changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters cause what we feel as love. But, what is so special about these neurotransmitters? The names of these chemicals might sound familiar to a reader with a science background, as they are involved in many other important biological processes, but they might also sound familiar to other type of person: a drug user.  These neurotransmitters have many connections to drugs, whether in the development of drug addiction or the effects of street drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines. So perhaps a more fitting answer to the original question is that love is a drug, a drug that makes us feel the various emotions and physical effects of love. Understanding the connections between love and drugs can help us further understand the nature of love and drug addiction.   

            Love may seem like an unstructured feeling, but Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, proposes that love exists in three stages, lust, attraction, and attachment, each driven by a different set of hormones and neurotransmitters (1). The first stage is driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen in men and women. During this stage we decide whether or not we are attracted to another person. Psychology research has shown it takes between 90 seconds and 4 minutes for a person to decide whether or not they are attracted to someone, based mainly on body language and voice (1).

            The next stage, which Fisher calls attraction, is associated with notions of “falling in love,” “love sickness,” and what Steven Picker, a psychologist at Harvard University, calls “romantic infatuation” (2). This stage is significant because it is when the brain most resembles the brain of someone on drugs. The levels of several chemicals change during this stage, namely phenylethylamine (PEA), serotonin, and norepinphrine. The level of PEA, which has been described as a naturally produced amphetamine, increases leading to physiological effects such as insomnia, increased focus, and elation (3). High levels of norepinphrine, a stress hormone, produce the familiar effects of a racing heart and increased energy, while low levels of serotonin lead to obsessive behavior. It is clear that these chemicals produce an altered state. Isn’t that the definition of a drug?  Then shouldn’t love also be considered a drug? Maybe there is a reason why popular culture is full of with references to love as a drug. Whether it is the existence of  “love potions” that cast one under a magical spell in classic TV shows or pop songs like the quoted verse from the Roxy Music song “Love is the Drug.”

            But what about the popular phrase “love addict?” Fisher’s research on dopamine levels during the attraction phase suggests that it is possible to be addicted to love. Fisher set up an experiment where she took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of subjects who had self-reportedly just fallen madly in love. The fMRI scans revealed two areas of the brain, the caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental area (VTA), become activated when the subjects are shown a photograph of his or her loved one (4).  The caudate nucleus and VTA are both involved in the brain’s reward system, which attempts to regulate behavior by inducing pleasurable effects. In the case of the VTA, the release of dopamine-making cells to various parts of the brain produce a feeling of elation. Interestingly, drug addiction is also based on the dopamine reward system, as almost all drug addiction includes increased levels of dopamine in the VTA. fMRI scans of cocaine addicts show that the VTA is activated from high levels of dopamine when they are given an IV injection of cocaine (5).This research suggests the activation of the VTA dopamine system is required for the development of addiction. The connection of love and drugs in the VTA new meaning to the term “love addict.” Perhaps falling in love is comparable to developing a drug addiction. If love and drug addiction result from the  increased levels of dopamine in the VTA, is it possible to treat drug addiction with love? Recent research suggests yes; drug addicts who have fallen in love do report diminished and entirely disappeared drug cravings (3). So, essentially love replaces their need for whatever substance they are addicted to.

            Why would love and drugs both activate the VTA? Art Aron of Stony Brook University believes it is because love is part of a “motivation system designed to enable suitors to build and maintain an intimate relationship with a preferred mating partner (4).” Thus, love is essentially a motivation system for reproduction, which is key to the survival of a species. So love is addictive to keep interest in a relationship in order to reproduce and love is a natural high to serve as enticement to reproduce.

            The attraction stage eventually fades and the third stage of love, attachment takes hold. During this stage the levels of the mentioned neurotransmitters return to normal and the levels of another neurotransmitter, oxytocin, tends to increase (1). Oxytocin is known to promote bonding, as it is released during orgasm, to promote pair bonding, and childbirth, to promote bonding between mother and child. Oxytocin is also released when ecstasy, also known as the love drug, is ingested, Unsurprisingly, before ecstasy became illegal, it was used in couple’s therapy for the same reason.

            Clearly, there are many connections between love and drugs. However, it is important to remember that love and drugs involve a combination of neurotransmitters and hormones, which aren’t fully understood. Future research will help us understand more about the exact roles these neurotransmitters play.

 

References

 

(1) The Science of Love Your Amazing Brain Website,  http://www.youramazingbrain.org.uk/lovesex/sciencelove.htm;  accessed 16 January 2009.

 

(2) “Crazy Love,” Time website, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1704692,00.htmlpinker; accessed 16 January 2009.

 

(3) “The Love Drug,” http://www.joekort.com/articles49.htm; accessed 16 January 2009.

 

(4) “Your Brain on Love,” Time website, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993160,00.html; accessed 16 January 2009.

 

(5) “This is Your Brain on Love,” LA Times website, http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jul/30/health/he-attraction30; accessed 16 January 2009.

 

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

love, molecules, and the brain

"it is important to remember that love and drugs involve a combination of neurotransmitters and hormones, which aren’t fully understood"

Perhaps also important to remember that "the combination of neurotransmitters and hormones" is only effective by virtue of its interactions with neurons, ie boxes and cables? Which are also not "fully understood", and may well be different in different people? always changing?

For more on these themes, see The "Nature"of Desire.   

jrlewis's picture

Very interesting comparison

Very interesting comparison of the neurochemistry of love and drugs.  I wonder if there might be other activites or states that result in the same neurochemical profile?  What about the intense relationship between a horse and rider?  Or a pet owner and their pet?  What about a human relationship with an inanimate object? 

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