Is Love Addictive?
Drugs, sex, gambling, work – lots of substances and activities can hijack our brains through the process of addiction. Is love one of them?
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Nicotine, cocaine, alcohol, heroin, work, gambling, sex, food. Life is basically a gauntlet of substances and behaviors humans can become obsessed with and dependent on.
But what about love? Not just sex, but the deep interpersonal attachment we call love – can it be addictive?
The notion of obsessive, all-consuming, even addictive love goes back literally thousands of years. The ancient Greek poet Sappho wrote about watching her lover marry someone else, and she describes being seized with trembling, drenched in cold sweat and feeling nearly dead.
She might as well be describing opium withdrawals – or an Alanis Morissette song.
Romantic love does have a lot of external features in common with drug addiction: initial feelings of bliss and euphoria, obsessive, fixated behavior, often leading to poor, potentially life-ruining decisions.
A 2010 paper from the New York Academy of Sciences points out that common criteria for diagnosing drug dependence include “life interference, tolerance, withdrawal, and repeated attempts to quit.” Sound anything like your relationship with your ex? If so, you’re not alone. But is there any more measurable basis for thinking love can be considered an addiction in the brain?
Actually, yes! Let’s talk brain imaging: So one way addiction hijacks the human brain is by taking advantage of mammalian reward and motivation systems — like the mesolimbic dopamine system, which includes the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens.
This is a part of the nervous system that gives us internal “rewards,” when we do something with an evolutionary benefit, like eating or sex. Essentially, it’s how the brain tells itself: “Hey, what you just did? Do that again. And again. And again.” Whether it’s eating a nutritious meal, or, unfortunately, snorting cocaine.
Back in 2005, a study in the Journal of Neurophysiology used fMRI to look at the brains of test subjects who self-reported that they were intensely “in love” with someone else. When these lovebirds were shown pictures of the people they adored, there was activation in sections of that same mammalian reward and motivation system – for example, the right ventral tegmental area.
But it gets worse: A follow-up study in 2010 looked at what happened to the brains of men and women who had been _rejected_ but reported that they were still deeply in love.
It wasn’t pretty. When heartbroken lovers were forced to look at pictures of their exes, there was elevated activity in our old friends the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens. Researchers pointed out that the rejected lovers showed “several neural correlates” in common with the brain activity of cocaine addicts craving their drug.
So at the level of brain chemistry, romantic love can be kind of like substance addiction.
But there are reasons you might not want to refer to your latest crush as a full-on addiction just yet. For example: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t officially recognize love addiction. And while cravings for love can be devastating when they’re unrequited or self-destructive, they can also be deeply fulfilling in a way that no drug habit could ever be.