Love: A Narcotic High?
Love: A Narcotic High?
Love. The combination of friendship, affection and lust that makes us experience something that is beautifully powerful and horribly painful at the same time. Even if we cannot physically see or touch a person we’re in love with, we still feel a deep sense of connection with them, we feel for them, and are willing to do anything just to see them happy. An inexplicable desire to ensure the other person’s happiness, irrespective of anything else, irrespective of a physical presence or relationship, is what differentiates love from lust. The power of love is enough to warp judgement in otherwise sensible people. People often start idealizing their partners, magnifying their virtues, explaining away their flaws and even see beyond all their imperfections! They have belief in every word, trust every gesture and are content in holding close to their hearts every assertion made by their loved ones, no matter how clichéd or ridiculous. Many times, people even exalt the relationship itself and truly feel that their relationship is more special and ever-lasting than anyone else’s! The world is looked at through rose-tinted glasses and we feel we’re in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Everything oozes bliss.
But what is responsible for so many of us getting starry-eyed? Are we programmed to relentlessly search for "The One", even if it means encountering several unpleasant experiences on the way? Is the heart solely responsible? ...is the heart responsible at all?
In a group of experiments conducted by various universities, scientists conducted brain scans on the brains of college students in love, while they looked at a photo of their beloved. The results of the experiment revealed intense, complicated activity in the caudate and ventral tegmental areas of the brain. The ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain is made up of a group of neurons located close to the midbrain. They are the origin of dopaminergic cells, a clump of neurons that produce and release dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that is produced the regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation and the feeling of pleasure. It plays a major part in addiction. High levels of dopamine are even related to heightened attention, increased energy and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, less need for food, and goal-oriented behaviour. The VTA is also widely associated with the reward circuitry of the brain, a system that causes an individual to act a certain way repeatedly in the hope for a ‘reward’. This reinforces behaviour and can be attributed to objects, behavioural acts or internal physical states.
When we fall in love, the VTA gets stimulated and releases high levels of dopamine that flood the caudate. Thus, the caudate area of the brain, severely involved with cravings, becomes very active when one is smitten by romantic love. The caudate, intoxicated by the ‘high’ and the sense of overwhelming pleasure on dopamine release and driven by the reward system sends signals to the VTA for more dopamine. The more dopamine we get, the more of a high we feel, and this in turn drives a greater need for dopamine. Thus, this reward system is also responsible for the psychological part of ‘dopamine-tolerance’. Sustained activity and long-term presence of dopamine in our body causes a larger dose to be needed to reach the same effect. At this point, we can draw marked similarities between states of mind of an individual in love and individual addicted to cocaine: both systems give an intense elation, cause severe tolerance to develop and thus increase an individual’s dependency.
This analogy, though fascinating, gives rise to several other questions. If being in love induces a state of mind similar to that of being addicted to a narcotic drug, will failure to experience the "highs" give rise to withdrawal symptoms? Could heartache and the pain on rejection be alluded to withdrawal symptoms faced by a drug-addict?
Heartache has several manifestations. We could be living in denial, clinging to memories, turning passion to fury, deciding on a ‘fresh start’, putting on a brave front, feeling bereft and despondent or sinking into depression. But all these forms of heartache can be linked to a common factor: dopamine. As discussed earlier, dopamine levels soar when we fall in love. In the initial ‘heartache’ stage when the rejected lover continues to love, perhaps more intensely than before, dopamine levels continue to surge. The circuits in the brain that control rewards and anger are closely entwined and as a result of soaring dopamine levels, this is what eventually turns love to ‘hate’ and gives rise to feelings of bitterness and superficial regret. People always assume hate to be the opposite of love but biologically, they arise out of the same factor-- soaring dopamine.
As time passes and a person experiences various stages of heartache, they realize and accept their love is no longer reciprocated. This causes dopamine levels to undergo a sudden drop. As dopamine levels decline further, lethargy, despondency and depression set in and the world seems to be a dark abyss. Some studies even suggest that heartache can ‘stun’ the heart. Researchers at Johns Hopkins reveal that sudden emotional stress can result in severe but reversible cardiac-muscle weakness that mimics a classic heart attack. This condition called stress cardiomyopathy, is colloquially known as “broken heart” syndrome.
In another group of experiments conducted by various universities, scientists conducted brain scans on the brains of college students who had recently been rejected by their loved ones and were experiencing ‘heartache’. This time, the results revealed the insular cortex, the part of the brain that experiences physical pain, to become very active. This makes us wonder, and maybe accept the fact that heartache is perhaps not just a social construct, a mental state or a figment of the imaginations of dramatic poets. Heartache amounts to actual, physical pain. Heartache is not merely a hyperbole.
Having discussed all this, would it be safe to conclude that love, no matter how powerful and captivating in its earlier stage, will eventually fade, and that all relationships will eventually fall apart? Should we accept that love is always short-term and that couples who are happily married for over 20 years are merely fabricating feelings?
A study by a leading anthropologist reveals that the real difference between early-stage, short-term romance and late-stage, eternal love is the feeling of deep attachment that makes us want to be with the person without feeling the early, maniac obsession of when we first fall in love. Long-term and undying ‘true-love’ has its effects observed in the ventral pallidum, a region of the brain associated with feelings of long-term attachment, and in the Raphe nuclei, a cluster of nuclei found in the brain stem responsible for serotonin production. Serotonin is a chemical associated with calm and less obsessive feelings and is vital for the existence of a perennial love that does not fade or self-destruct. In early stages, dopamine appears to suppress serotonin and this misguides the search for eternal passion. We keep searching for the perfect high, discard relationships and instead of seeing a change in feelings (from crazy, maniac to calm, affectionate) as normal, as the effect of serotonin over dopamine, people assume they no longer feel the same about their loved one, and want to discontinue their relationship, thus putting a flamboyant end to a potentially beautiful bond. However, for the couples for whom serotonin and dopamine do find a mutually satisfying equilibrium, love lasts forever and this is what continues to give others a hope for true love too. Most people will just roll their eyes when asked if romantic love can last forever. But there are others who prove them wrong.
These findings, though extremely logical and plausible, cause great discomfort to me. Though viewing love as merely a drug-induced state of mind a complex interplay of chemicals can provide some balm for a broken heart, could it be really be true that the most wonderful, soaring feeling in the world amounts to no more than a narcotic high, a temporary state of mania? Just like any other drug, should we accept that even with love, the highs will never last but neither will the withdrawal? That with time, the craving and pain will go away and the heart of the brain will return to 'normal'?
11. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles