Shakira and Simple Plan had it right: Being in love is like being addicted. It’s strange to think that the pleasure we feel when eating is the same pleasure we get from winning a competition, taking a recreational drug or even being in love. In reality, the pleasure we get from these things all comes from the same place in the brain, and is a result of the same chemical reactions. Furthermore, the pain caused by losing these things also come from the same place as well. It is like a mirror tunnel in which our brains affect our relationships, which in turn affect our brains.
It is almost unnerving how similar these experiences are when looked at in terms of behavior and chemical reactions. Just look at any website or book that talks about the signs of addiction and you’ll see. Love and drug addiction both cause change in personality and attitude. Love and drug addiction both cause mood swings, irritability and outbursts. They both cause periods of hyperactivity, agitation and giddiness. And both can cause fear and anxiety.
If someone asked you to point to the part of your body where you physically feel love, you might point to the heart, cheeks, arms or legs. The range of answers you would get to this question would cover the entire body. However, to fully answer this question, you would want to point to the nucleus accumbens, a part of the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex. When exposed to certain neurotransmitters, the nucleus accumbens creates an association between pleasure and a stimulus such as food, drugs or sex, and will facilitate a future desire for these stimuli.
The dopamine and serotonin released from eating, taking a drug or being in love all work the same way in the nucleus accumbens and will condition the brain to heavily desire those things. So when these stimuli are in abundance, the brain works to ensure that you keep coming back for more; more food, more drugs, or more love. But what happens when these stimuli disappear?
When two people are in a relationship, they share more than just emotions. They share responsibility, assets, germs and immune function, and social identity. This brings a whole new meaning to “getting under each other’s skin”: Once all the stimuli associated with an amorous relationship are gone, the body experiences a crushing emptiness. Point to the part of your body where you feel this. Is it the chest that weighs a thousand pounds, weak arms and legs, clouded mind? You would actually have to point to the same part of the brain that processes physical pain, rejection and being attacked: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is a “collar” of brain tissue that wraps around the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres. When these two regions interact, they play a major role in regulating blood pressure, heart rate, decision making, reward anticipation, empathy and emotion.
Many people may be familiar with another fascinating quirk of the brain: the amazing ability to forget every negative aspect of a relationship and only remember the positive, pleasure-bringing parts. It is this quirk that drives many people to stay in bad situations. This is the same process that makes drug addicts keep returning to the needle and powder despite being fully aware of the consequences. The decision-making ability of the ACC and the corpus callosum becomes horribly reduced when faced with the potential loss of pleasurable stimuli such as a drug or love. We are so addicted to the pleasurable stimuli that love can bring that we will subject ourselves to countless hardships.
So, love is just a chemical state of being. But flowers and chocolate never hurt anyone.
HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.