Whether it’s falling in love or losing in love, your brain is addicted to the process.
Falling in love is intense. At times we can feel excited and anxious, resulting in butterflies, sweaty palms, and weak knees. While at other times, we can be happy and content, oblivious to our surroundings just thinking about when we might be able to look upon our beloved again.
Evaluating functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of the brains of people in love, researchers noticed that when the subjects were looking at an image of their partner, the parts of the brain associated with motivation and reward were activated. We are motivated to see this person, and feel rewarded when we do. The pleasure center of the brain rewards us with little burst of neurotransmitter, making us come back for more. It’s hard-wired into our circuitry. We seek it out because it feels good.
Some feel that romantic love can be considered a form of addiction because it shares many of the same characteristics as addiction; focused attention, mood swings, cravings, emotional dependence, loss of self-control, etc. It can be a constructive form of addiction when the love is reciprocal, bonding the pair together emotionally. But when one’s love is rejected, it may be more of a destructive form of addiction, leading to heartbreak and despair.
The same researchers who evaluated fMRI images of subjects in love, later scanned the brains of 15 college-aged volunteers who had recently been rejected by their partner, but were still in love. None of the participants were taking antidepressant medications at the time of the study.
For heartbroken men and women, looking at photos of those you have loved but lost also activates reward regions of the brain. Brain regions including the ventral tegmental area and ventral striatum light up in either case. But the medial and lateral orbitofrontal cortex, associated with cocaine craving, addiction, and emotional regulation also light up in those scorned. The activity in the the prefrontal area of the brain may indicate that the rejected subjects were trying to adjust their behavior and adapt to the situation using their cognitive, experience-based reward systems.
The researchers suggest that the feelings and behaviors seen after a romantic rejection, like obsessive behaviors or depression, are truly brain-based and difficult to control. Difficult, but not impossible. Self-regulation can be a powerful tool. The relationship between cognition and emotion is dependent upon activation of areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, responsible for self-regulation.
Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love