News & Politics

Striking New Brain Research Reveals What You've Long Suspected About Love and Drugs Like Cocaine

Feeling high on love makes even more sense now.

There are thousands of songs about the narcotic effects of falling in love. One of the most obvious examples that comes to mind when reading about Helen Fisher’s brain scans of the lovestruck is Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug,” an unintentionally prescient musical summation of Fisher’s scientific findings. Bryan Ferry sings about love as if it’s a controlled substance: he “need[s] to score,” he “can’t shake free,” he says love “got a hook in me.” At 40 years old, “Love Is the Drug” was neither the first, nor the last song to treat love like an addictive pharmaceutical; the love-drug metaphor has nearly become a songwriting cliche. Now science has confirmed what so many songwriters—and anyone who has ever loved anyone else, really—have been expressing all along. That intense love really is like a potent drug. So much so, even our brains can’t always tell the difference.

Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, began looking at love’s effects on the brain in the 1990s. Along with research partners Lucy Brown and Arthur Aron, she recruited 17 college students who described themselves as “madly in love.” These subjects were in the dizzying early throes of enamoredness—that heady period during the first month to year-and-a-half of dating—and “so intensely in love that they could hardly eat or sleep.” While the besotted students looked at a photo of their beloved, the researchers took more than 100 scans of their brains, then repeated the process as the subjects viewed a picture of a friend for whom they held no romantic feelings. In the latter case, the brain scans revealed nothing worth writing home about. But the images taken while students gazed at the objects of their affection showed increased brain activity—most notably, in the same area sparked in people who have just gotten high. And not just any kind of high, mind you. Class A illicit drugs high.

“We found activity in...cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions,” Fisher recounts in a 2008 TED Talk. “Indeed, this...is part of the brain's reward system. It's way below your cognitive thinking process. It's below your emotions. It's part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.”

It’s not terribly surprising that love manifests in the brain like other pleasurable experiences. It feels good, after all, so that much seems intuitive. But the love-and-heavy-drugs parallel is fairly startling, even for others who also study brains. Shauna H. Springer, psychologist and author of the book Marriage, for Equals: The Successful Joint (Ad)Ventures of Well-Educated Couples, marvels at the discovery in a piece for Psychology Today. “We're not talking about the slightly buzzed feeling you might get from drinking a glass or two of wine, but rather about the high-octane euphoria associated with...cocaine,” Springer writes. “Falling in love is the best high you can get without breaking any laws.”

This legal state of euphoria is precipitated by the surge in dopamine cited by Dr. Fisher. Often labeled a feel-good chemical, dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and its pursuit. (Though it should be noted that dopamine’s sexed-up, hedonistic popular image is a bit reductive, considering it’s also “involved in everything from regulating movement to the control of attention.”) Increased levels of dopamine not only make us feel good, they compel us to do things, from the fairly mundane (e.g. eating) to the ultra-risky (e.g. actual cocaine), that we know will bring on those good feelings. When feelings of love boost dopamine, we crave that loving feeling all the more. If the cycle sounds a bit like drug addiction, that’s because it is. Love, after all, is also borne out of habit.

”We hold hands and gaze at each other in particular ways that are 'special' and thus define the relationship, and these behaviors become habits that deliver a reward: love,” Jim Pfaus, a professor of psychology at Canada’s Concordia College, explains in Men’s Journal. "We make addiction a dirty word because it's associated with drugs, but in fact it's a natural process that triggers a wanting or craving for something you desire.”

Love is unique in the way it hits the brain; lust, for example, elicits a different neurological response. In a 2012 study led by Dr. Pfaus, along with colleagues from Switzerland and the U.S., researchers discovered that love and sexual desire affect disparate but closely related parts of the brain. Desire on its own—lust without love—activates the ventral striatum region, an area of the brain that responds to simple pleasures. Love, conversely, stimulates the dorsal striatum, a region Pfaus says was “previously shown to translate motivation into action, especially in the formation of behaviors aimed at getting reward, and in particular, drug reward.”

“Take the ritualistic way a guy fondles a cigarette in his fingers or a cocaine addict cuts a rock into lines to snort,” says Pfaus. “Simply seeing these actions will activate the dorsal part of an addict's striatum. Seeing or thinking about your romantic partner activates the same region."

That lines up with the findings from Helen Fisher’s study, and further explains why we chase love highs the way we might, under different circumstances, chase drug highs. But our love longings have far better upsides—and productive goals. 

"This mechanism is part of the compensation system that pushes us to romantic pursuit," Lucy Brown, Fisher’s research colleague and a clinical professor in neurology at Einstein College of Medicine, tells Business Insider. "This obsessive and compulsive attitude that for the same reasons appears among drug addicts is maybe not good for the individual, but serves our human gender exactly like other impulses of mammals."

In other words, as with so many other evolutionary tricks, it’s yet another way of nudging us toward procreation. Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, helps break this down further: “Nature’s imperative is that we reproduce, and love is one of the mechanisms nature has put in place to make sure that we do that,” Marsh says. “We think that nature set us up to form long-term pair bonds to ensure that our offspring would have the best chance of survival in the long-term.”

Marsh highlights another neurotransmitter closely associated with amorous feelings: oxytocin, nicknamed the “love hormone.” The chemical floods our brains during a host of love-oriented actions, like when we hug, cuddle and have sex. (Although, as with dopamine, there’s more to oxytocin than just the fuzzy wuzzies.)

Oxytocin seems to play a key role in relationships between prairie voles, a species of rodent who often mate for life. Their cousins, montane voles, are similar in a number of ways with one big difference: monogamy. After montane voles mate, they go their separate ways. The key to this difference between the two vole types seems to come down to oxytocin levels. As Marsh explains, their mating behaviors likely help explain our own.

“What seems to be the case in prairie voles is that they have really dense oxytocin receptors,” says Marsh. “When they mate, [it] triggers a flood of oxytocin to be released. That triggers a flood of dopamine to be released...which causes the female to find that particular male really rewarding to be around. Like, ‘I like that dude and I would like to stick with him.’ And they do.”

She notes that if you block oxytocin receptors in prairie voles, they stop creating pair bonds and begin to act more like their “promiscuous” (science’s word, not mine) cousins, montane voles. Similarly, if you inject montane voles with oxytocin, they suddenly get a lot more interested in pair bonding. “I think our best guess is that humans are probably built similarly,” Marsh says. “That people who excite romantic feelings in us probably also trigger increases in oxytocin, which results in [an] increase in dopamine when you find that someone that you want to stick with.”

So you could say that, like prairie voles, our brains awash in ecstasy-inducing neurotransmitters, we pair off. But if oxytocin is the chemical glue that binds us, it follows that like any adhesive, its stickiness changes over time. What happens to our brains as the years pass and love changes forms, as it is wont to do? Fisher, Brown and Aron decided to find out by repeating their experiment, this time with broken-hearted college students. The 15 subjects had been in relationships that lasted an average of two years, and were dumped roughly two months prior to the study. Lovesick and dejected, they self-reported spending as much as 85 percent of their days thinking of their unrequited loves.

Again, the students were shown pictures of their exes and an acquaintance while an MRI took snapshots of their brains. (“It was very difficult actually, putting these people in the machine, because they were in such bad shape,” Fisher says.) The resulting brain scans reaffirmed the love-drug parallel, only this time, in a sort of inverse way. In contrast to the first love study, the researchers were now seeing the dark emotional flipside. "[Romantic love] is a very powerfully wonderful addiction when things are going well,” says Fisher, “and a perfectly horrible addiction when things are going poorly." Fisher offered further insight during her TED Talk:

We found activity in the brain region, in exactly the same brain region associated with intense romantic love. What a bad deal. You know, when you've been dumped, the one thing you love to do is just forget about this human being, and then go on with your life, but no, you just love them harder…That brain system—the reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving, for focus—becomes more active when you can't get what you want. In this case, life's greatest prize: an appropriate mating partner.

That sounds grim, sure, but the study offered good news for the heartbroken as well. Waiting it out, inevitably, helped those feelings go away. The old adage about time healing all wounds is scientifically true, even for hearts. In later experiments with the same students, Fisher et al. found, their brains stopped showing activity in those areas.

How about couples who don’t break up, but instead stay together beyond those initial months and years of love, after the rush fades? Though creatures of habit, humans also grow bored of routine, which is why love doesn’t always age well. "One of the problems with habit is it automates behavior, to the point of doing the least amount of work necessary to get a reward," says Jim Pfaus. "That's why once sex becomes habitual, arousal and desire often fly out the window.”

Let’s revisit Pfaus’ study, the one that compared love and lust. It’s true that sexual desire and love show up in different regions of the brain. But researchers also found that when lust develops into love, that development is also observable in the brain. Where desire only affects the ventral striatum, as it expands into love, it also progressively activates more and more of the dorsal striatum, where love (and drugs) make their mark.

"[B]oth parts, dorsal and ventral, will continue to be activated, so long as a couple continues to be hot for each other,” Pfaus explains. To keep those parts engaged—or to stay “hot,” to use the doctor’s words—switch things up. “Vacation sex, role-playing, whatever your pleasure, all have the ability to keep it fiery, even if you've been living with your partner for 20 years.”

The kinds of couples who heed that advice might be among the 10 to 20 percent of couples for whom Lucy Brown says those intense feelings of love never fade.

"The general belief in our field is that people who say they are in love after a 30-year relationship will probably fail the test of brain scanning,” Brown tells Business Insider. “However, to our surprise, we found that some of the older couples in our study, when exposed to a photo of their spouses, showed the same brain activity as the younger people who were deeply in love."

Which means there’s no such thing as being too old, in human or relationship years, to experience love’s drug-like bliss, according to science. At any stage, you're guaranteed it will be among the purest, uncut and most natural highs you can achieve. And unlike pretty much anything else you can buy on the street, love is the only high that has the potential never to wear off.

 
 

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.