The Science Of Why Love Is A Powerful Drug

by Blair Thill

There’s a certain type of love we all crave and chase. We want it to be all-consuming. We want to think about our partners all day and night. We want to be love sick to the point of nausea. We’ve seen that type of love on television, and we’ve been moved by songs written about it.

Once we experience love our desire for it only increases. We remember the euphoria of being intimately tied to another human being, and we want to recapture that feeling. It’s difficult to articulate what, exactly, that feels like.

Well, it’s almost as if love is a drug, and you want another hit. That sounds crazy but, believe it or not, there’s science to back it up.

Falling in love stimulates the same part of the brain as an actual drug.

In the moments immediately following the use of an illicit drug like cocaine, the brain’s levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine skyrocket, causing feelings of euphoria. The ‘high’ of the high. Yet it seems that the initial stages of love offer a similar (albeit legal) kind of high.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist whose work focuses on relationships, has studied this phenomenon. Her research has found that, when you fall in love, serotonin lifts your confidence levels, norepinephrine boosts your energy and dopamine enhances feelings of pleasure.

In simpler terms: You feel like you’re on top of the world when you’re falling in love.

In addition to stimulating these brain chemicals, new love also plays tricks on the amygdala, which acts like the brain’s fear center. Think about how stressful those beginning stages of a relationship are — they tap into your deepest insecurities because you can’t really tell if your partner is on the same page.

These stresses stimulate the amygdala, which then signals your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, making your heart flutter. Noradrenaline makes you sweat. Cortisol sends a wave of excess energy to your muscles. Sounds like the physical reaction to a drug, right?

Some scientists think that love used to be one of the only highs people experienced in ancient times. Only in the modern age have we felt the need for anything else.

Can love actually help manage pain?

Now that we’ve established that love alters the brain like a drug, there’s another question to consider: Does that mean its effects can actually help when you’re in pain?

The hypothesis was there for researchers Arthur Aron, PhD, and Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, of SUNY Stonybrook. They hypothesized that since the brain’s reward system is critical in pain management, and love targets that reward system, it must have an overall impact.

They tested this hypothesis by having volunteers undergo MRI scans while they were experiencing pain. When patients were holding pictures of their loved ones dopamine spiked in their brains. The reward center took over and reduced their pain, the brain scans suggested.

But if love can help manage pain, does that mean it can also cause pain?

Recovering after a breakup is like detoxing after drug use.

We’ve all been through a terribly painful breakup. Can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t eat — it’s one of the worst kinds of pain. You start jonesing for your ex the same way you jones for coffee at 3pm.

That’s because you haven’t just broken up with someone; you are literally detoxing from the feeling of being in love.

Fisher has also studied the effects breakups have on the brain through experiments in which she recruited college-aged men and women who were reeling from the recent end to their relationships. When the participants looked at photos of their exes, the parts of their brains that lit up in scans were associated with physical pain, distress and attachment. Those are the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by drug dependency.

And, just like someone suffering from drug addiction, people who are suffering through a breakup are prone to obsessions and reality distortions.

This revelation seems to prove that going “cold turkey” to quit your ex is the best strategy. That means no emails, texts or phone calls.

Love may be intoxicating at first, but when it turns sour, it can get just as dangerous and insidious as cocaine. Think about that the next time you flirt with the person next to you at the bar and you feel yourself falling.

Falling in love is all a part of being human. Like love, magic is a drug. CLICK HERE to catch up now on The Magicians and see why millions have been hooked.