“You are my drug of choice and I plan to overdose.” - Angie Stanton
Romantic love is one of the most powerful, maddening experiences on earth. Love researcher Helen Fisher, who has dedicated her life to studying how our brains behave while in love, reduces it to this: “Romantic love is an addiction--a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going poorly.”
Her research identifies all the areas and chemicals that flood our brains when we fall in love. But perhaps the most interesting reveal is this: romantic love is not stimulated and regulated by an emotional system in the brain, but a motivational system. It’s a bit of a nuanced difference, but the general idea is that emotional influence on behavior centers around affecting an experience, physiologically and cognitively; whereas motivational influence is about effecting behavior to gain reward and avoid punishment.
The takeaway on this difference is that our behavior around a new, romantic love is mainly motivated by reward. We don’t seek to feel included and cherished so much as we seek the hit of Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, Vasopressin, and Oxytocin.
It’s about addiction. Love really is a drug.
As such, it is also an obsession. Research tells us those sleepless nights, intrusive thoughts, and cravings to be back in someone’s arms come from diminished levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin--a carbon copy of the reduced levels seen in those with obsessive compulsive disorder.
There are also many parts of your brain that dim out during this drug-addled, new-love phase. The prefrontal cortices (decision making, judgement) take a big ole backseat and your fear-loving amygdala quiets a bit too. This helps explain why you might fall in love with some less ideal characters. After about two years, when all these brain centers and chemicals go back to a baseline of normal, your prefrontal cortex fires back up and sees a band drummer on your couch. Again.
So what happens to the drummer when you dump him? Well, if he really, really loves you, he gets to experience the torture of having all these romantic love centers light up again and becomes newly obsessed, addicted, and in love. Except now, no reciprocation. In other words, same addiction, but now withdrawal. In fact, fMRI scans show brain activity of the heartbroken are very similar to “activation areas involved in cocaine addiction.”
Helen Fisher expounds on her research in this area in her TED Talk, saying that while all the old standards of falling in love get re-activated, another brain area also fires up--one that calculates losses, gains, and risk. This is problematic because, as Fisher says, “You're lying there, you're looking at the picture, and you're in this machine, and you're calculating what went wrong. What have I lost? When you've been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you're feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you're feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation, and the willingness to risk it all, to win [back] life's greatest prize.”
She speculates that this contributes to the many tragedies that surround love-crimes of passion, self-inflicted pain and suffering, suicide, and even war. So, what’s to be done? You must engage in the slow, long slog of rewiring your brain, which has dedicated countless hours and neurons to loving a drug that is now forever off the market.
Psychologist Guy Winch recommends self-efficacy. Take control over these rambling brain areas and lick your wounds by rebuilding your esteem. In brief, he recommends these three steps for “emotional first aid.”
We all get to experience both sides of heartbreak, but the good news is that research shows it’s never as bad as we think it will be. Breakups don’t need to leave you broken. They will hurt, they will dent your esteem and make you question your choices, but love will come again. And when it does, you’ll fall all over yourself for the fix because love is a drug.