In the brain, romantic love is fundamentally addictive


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“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. I would like to broaden the definition of addiction – and also remove the scientific idea that all addictions are pathological and harmful.

Since formal diagnoses began over fifty years ago, the compulsive pursuit of gambling, food, and sex (known as non-substance rewards) has not been considered addictive. Only the abuse of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin and nicotine have been formally considered to be addictions. Much of this categorization is based on the fact that substances activate basic “reward pathways” in the brain associated with craving and obsession and produce pathological behaviors. Psychiatrists work in this world of psychopathology – which is abnormal and makes you sick.

Face it you’re addicted to love

As an anthropologist, I think they are limited by this point of view. Scientists have now shown that food, sex and gambling compulsions use many of the same brain pathways activated by addiction. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) finally recognized that at least one form of non-substance abuse – gambling – can be considered addictive. Sexual and food abuse have not yet been included. Neither has romantic love.

I will propose that love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of patterns of behavior and brain mechanisms. In addition, it is often a positive addiction.

Scientists and laymen alike have long viewed romantic love as part of the supernatural or as a social invention of the troubadours of 12th century France. The evidence does not support these notions. Love songs, poems, stories, operas, ballets, novels, myths and legends, love magic, love charms, love suicides and homicides – evidence of romantic love has now been found in more of 200 companies spanning thousands of years. All over the world, men and women yearn for love, live for love, kill for love and die for love. Human romantic love, also known as passionate love or “being in love,” is regularly regarded as a human universal.

Symptoms of addiction

In addition, men and women in love have all the basic symptoms of addiction.

Above all, the lover is concentrated on his drug of choice, the object of love. The lover thinks obsessively about him (intrusive thinking) and calls, writes or often keeps in contact compulsively. Most important in this experience is an intense motivation to win his beloved, much like the addict obsessed with drugs.

Passionate lovers distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the loved one, experience personality changes (emotional disturbance), and sometimes do inappropriate or risky things to impress that special other. Many are ready to sacrifice themselves, even to die for “him” or “her”.

(Credit: denniro / Shutterstock)

The lover thirsts for emotional and physical union with the loved one (dependence). And like drug addicts who suffer when they cannot get their drugs, the lover suffers when separated from the loved one (separation anxiety). Adversity and social barriers even accentuate this desire (attraction of frustration).

In fact, mad lovers express the four basic traits of addiction: desire, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. They experience a “rush” of euphoria when they are with their loved one (drunkenness). As their tolerance increases, they seek to interact more and more with the loved one (intensification). If the love object breaks the relationship, the lover experiences signs of drug withdrawal, including protests, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia, or hypersomnia. , loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability and loneliness.

Lovers, like drug addicts, also often go to extremes, sometimes doing degrading or physically dangerous things to win back the loved one. And lovers relapse like drug addicts. Long after a relationship has ended, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with letting go of their love can trigger memories and renewed urge.

Love in the mind

However, among the many indications that romantic love is addictive, perhaps none is more compelling than the growing neuroscience data. Using fMRI, several scientists have now shown that feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system”: in particular, the dopamine pathways associated with energy, focus. , motivation, ecstasy, hopelessness and desire, including primary regions associated with substance (and non-addiction).

In fact, I and my colleagues Lucy Brown, Art Aron, and Bianca Acevedo found activity in the nucleus accumbens – the central brain factory associated with all addictions – in rejected lovers. Additionally, some of our more recent results suggest correlations between nucleus accumbens activities and feelings of romantic passion in lovers madly and happily in love.

Nobel laureate Eric Kandel noted that studies of the brain “will give us new information about who we are as human beings.” Knowing what we now know about the brain, my brain scanner partner Lucy Brown suggested that romantic love is a natural addiction, and I argued that this natural addiction evolved from a mammalian history about 4.4 million years among our first hominid ancestors, in conjunction with the evolution of monogamy (serial, social) – a feature of humanity. Its goal: to motivate our ancestors to focus their mating time and their metabolic energy on one partner at a time, thus initiating the formation of a couple bond to raise their young (at least until infancy) together. as a team.

The sooner we embrace what brain science tells us – and use that information to improve the concept of addiction – the better we will understand ourselves and the billions of others on this planet who revel in ecstasy and struggle against it. the grief of this deeply. powerful, natural, often positive addiction: romantic love.


Extract of This idea must die, edited by John Brockman. Used with permission.

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