Head-Over-Heels Love Acts as Natural Painkiller

By EmilyM

For years people have noticed changes in mood and even in concentration and other cognitive abilities when thinking of a loved one, but new research published in the October 13th edition of PLos ONE shows that those who are in love, may actually experience less physical pain.

This theory was first tested on a group of Stanford undergraduates. These students, who were recruited by Dr. Sean Mackey chief of the pain management division at Stanford University School of Medicine, were said to be “wildly in love,” and became the test group for a very interesting study.

People have  referred to love as a natural anesthetic simply because when new love starts, many have a hard time concentrating on anything but the object of their desire and perhaps this alone may help them  more frequently ignore pain.

This study proves, however, that the effect is more than just a mind-over-matter one.

The study consisted of 15 love-crazed students, 7 men and 8 women, who were asked to bring a photo of their new love with them. While the participants were shown this photo, pain from a handheld thermal probe was inflicted upon them. As the control part of the experiment, the students were also distracted with the activity of naming every sport that does not require a ball while  being exposed to the same sort of pain. Both distractions, the photo and the sport activity distraction, seemed to have very similar pain reduction benefits.

This made it easy to switch out the photo of the loved one with an equally attractive photo of an acquaintance to see if the same benefit would be achieved. Surprisingly, participants did not receive the same relief as they had earlier when looking at their loved one, proving that more than just physical attraction or distraction is at work.

To further prove this theory, MRIs were also conducted to see the patterns of activity in the brain during these experiments. These tests revealed completely different activity going on in the brain when the participants were exposed to the photo of the loved one as opposed to the distraction of the sport activity and the photo of the acquaintance. Many wonder if these same results can translate to an older smitten population, but the study conductor feels confident that they would.

The scientific reason for this romantic phenomenon is that the area of the brain that triggers dopamine release and responds to drugs like cocaine, also known to numb pain, are active when feelings of love are experienced. For doctors, this may serve as a reminder that patients surrounded by loved ones may be able to cope with the pain of disease or illness.

While it would be next to impossible to recreate this same effect when patients are not in a relationship, perhaps doctors can more readily apply other distraction methods to help their patients retain a better level of comfort during painful times.