The dizzy stage of early romantic love seems to reduce the sensation of physical pain. So say the results of research at Stanford University School of Medicine. The participants reported significantly lower levels of pain when looking at pictures of their beloved than when viewing photos of friends.
“Love engages very deep primitive reward systems that directly impact on our overall experience of pain,” says researcher Sean Mackey, whose team looked at the effects of romantic feelings on pain.
Fifteen students, aged 19-21, who were in the first nine months of a romantic relationship and described themselves as “intensely in love” were recruited for the experiment. They were instructed to bring a photo of their sweetheart as well as one of a good-looking acquaintance of the same sex as the sweetheart.
While sitting in an MRI scanner to record their brain activity, the students held a block whose temperature could be controlled to cause high, moderate or no pain. Their pain ratings were noted while focusing on the picture of their loved one, the acquaintance, and a word-puzzle distraction.
Both the photos of romantic partners and the distraction puzzle reduced pain by nearly identical amounts. But the students had significantly less pain relief when looking at the photos of the attractive acquaintance.
Although the sweetheart photos and word puzzles both provided relief, they worked in different parts of the brain. The part of the brain activated by love was the brain’s reward center which is also activated by chocolate and drugs like cocaine.
It turns out that the writers of all those romantic songs and poems were right—love truly is a powerful thing.
This article was originally published in Pathways & Partners - Issue 25. To download this issue in PDF format, or past issues, visit our newsletter archives online at www.pathwayshealth.org/publications.