Love is a Powerful PainKiller
From the LA Times:
Researchers say just a photo of one’s beloved activates the brain’s reward centers something like a drug might.
… They knew that a few earlier studies had suggested that love relieved pain, but they wanted to go further and find out just what was happening in the brain. They put out a call on the Stanford campus for people who were in the first nine months of a relationship and still in the throes of romantic passion.
“It was clearly the easiest study we’ve ever recruited for — within hours we had these students banging on our doors saying, ‘We’re in love! We’re in love! Study us,’ ” Mackey said.
Jarred Younger, then a Stanford graduate student, and the team tested 15 subjects. All were asked to bring in six photos: three of their beloved and three of a comparably attractive person they knew. The researchers heated the palms of the subjects’ left hands to a point that caused either a moderate or high degree of pain, at which point the subjects looked at a photo, either of their beloved or the acquaintance.
In a third round of experiments, the researchers tested the effects of mere distraction, which is known to reduce pain, by having the subjects perform mental tasks (such as thinking of all sports that didn’t involve a ball) while their palms were heated.
The photo of the beloved and mental distraction appeared to reduce pain by about the same amount: 36% to 45% for moderate pain, and 12% to 13% for high pain. (The photo of the peer had no effect.) But when the scientists redid the experiment while scanning subjects’ brains with a functional MRI, they saw that the photo and the mental-distraction task activated very different parts of the brain.
The distraction task engaged the higher, thinking parts of the brain. A photo of the beloved, on the other hand, engaged the more primitive, “reptilian” regions — reward centers related to urges and cravings that are also implicated in addictions.
Learning how to harness the power of a loved one could help relieve pain without drug-induced side effects — or perhaps help people quit smoking, the scientists suggested.