February 26, 2007
Love Like Addiction In Brain Scans

A Wall Street Journal article surveying research on the neurobiology of love reports on the work of Dr. Helen Fisher. Love triggers the dopamine system which is also involved in drug addiction.

Dr. Fisher has studied love by looking at people's brains using magnetic resonance imaging machines. A recent study also looked at 15 subjects who were deeply in love but were nursing broken hearts. While in the scanner, they viewed "neutral" pictures of someone they knew but for whom they didn't have intense romantic feelings. Then they were shown a picture of their beloved.

Those suffering the aftermath of failed relationships have more than just the dopamine system active.

Compared with the neutral photos, a lover's picture triggers the dopamine system in the brain -- the same system associated with pleasure and addiction. But the brain images of those scorned in love also give us clues as to why the breakdown of a relationship can trigger serious health problems. The subjects dealing with failed relationships showed activity in the dopamine system -- suggesting they maintained intense feelings for their loved one. But they also showed activity in brain regions associated with risk taking, controlling anger and obsessive compulsive problems. Notably, the scans showed activity in one part of the brain linked with physical pain.

The article reports on an Italian study that found that love causes the neurotransmitter serotonin to drop to the level found in those with obsessive compulsive disorders. Might obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) be a side effect of the brain's tendency to fall in love? Do people who fall more deeply in love face a greater risk of OCD?

Jilted lovers who kill. Heartbroken people who who foolish and crazy things. It is no wonder that love causes these behaviors given what it does to emotions.

"It's not a good combination," notes Dr. Fisher. "You're feeling intense romantic love, you're willing to take big risks, you're in physical pain, obsessively thinking about a person and you're struggling to control your rage. You're not operating with your full range of cognitive abilities. It's possible that part of the rational mind shuts down."

I see the human mind as having a lot of obsolete and problematic vestiges. Take, for example, the fight-or-flight response where adrenaline flows and an angry and fearful person wants to either run away or attack. The response is maladaptive in the vast bulk of the situations where it happens. The stress it causes ages us more rapidly. Plus. it causes us to do things that get people fired or thrown in jail or to blow a business deal or romantic relationship. Wouldn't we be better off if we could suppress the neuronal and hormonal chain of events in fight-or-flight?

Our growing ability to figure out how our minds work portends a very different future. The more we understand the better we can intervene. Want to suppress the anger and pain of a romantic break-up? Would doing so make you feel less human? Or would you see the ability to do so as a boon?

People already take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicine. The serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) might even suppress some of the intensity of the feelings of being in love. So Prozac and Zoloft might help mend a broken heart.

But think about future technologies that will provide more powerful and finer grained control of human emotions. How will people use them? Will people choose to make themselves more rational? Will future humans seem emotion-less to present day humans? Or will humans choose to suppress emotional pain and feelings of obsession and addiction while still giving themselves a fairly wide range of other emotions?

Will most humans make themselves less easy to anger? Will some humans see their own anger as always so justified that they'll oppose attempts to suppress it?

The emotionless mind is not optimal for achievement. A mind totally devoid of emotion would lack in motivation. If you do not fear poverty or death or a dark alley in a bad part of a city how are you going to stay alive? If you do not have desire for higher status then you won't strive as hard to advance in your career or to start a company.

How to succeed gloriously in the future age of emotion-controlling neurotechnologies? Tune your emotions for maximum productivity. You'll want ambition but at a level that is not too distracting. You'll want to limit the amount of time you spend feeling anger or resentment or depression since too high a dose of any of those emotions becomes debilitating. You'll want to stay highly rational in dealing with others. Avoid excessive amounts of anger, fear, resentment or, for that matter, complacency. But each emotion has some adaptive value even today. Do not turn them down altogether.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 February 26 10:58 PM  Brain Love

gerard Skyler said at February 27, 2007 7:53 AM:

You can get free online access to Wall Street Journal and those other subscription sites with a netpass from: http://news.congoo.com

Free is better then pay...

Joshua Allen said at March 6, 2007 1:57 PM:

Some takeaways:

1) People should always mix love and drugs. Then when the relationship breaks up, you can blame the bad feeelings on drug withdrawl and kill your dealer.

2) Women should do brain scans of a man before committing to a relationship. If he is at the extreme end of the spectrum for "bad breakup", then she should avoid hooking up with him. Such men should be documented in a public "love offenders database".

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