Can love really conquer all?
A new study, published last week in online journal PLoS One, shows that staring at a photo of your significant other can reduce pain. Piggybacking on previous studies that showed a correlation between love and decreased pain, SUNY Stoney Brook researcher Arthur Aron and Stanford pain scientist Dr. Sean Mackey hatched a plan to use a functional MRI to explore exactly what parts of the brain are activated when love and pain are combined.
With the help of Jarred Younger, then a Stanford graduate student, Aron and Mackey put their plan, originally hatched over drinks one night at a conference, into motion. They had no problem finding Stanford students who were in the first nine months of a relationship. As Mackey joked “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!”
Subjects supply photos of loved ones and cute ones
The 15 subjects (comprised of seven men and eight women) came armed with six photos, three of their significant other and three of someone they were not in a relationship with, but found comparably attractive to their significant other. Participants hands were heated until it caused moderate or high amounts of pain, where they then viewed a photo of their lover or platonic friend. The control group took part in a distraction task, where they named every sport that didn’t involve a ball. Lucky for researchers “both love and distraction reduce pain to an equal amount,” according to Dr. Mackey, at a rate of about 36%-42% for moderate pain and 12% to 13% for high pain.
This allowed researchers to take the study farther than previous studies by comparing the functional MRIs of those who participated in a distraction task and those who viewed pictures of their loved one. The results were fascinating. According to Mackey, “the brain systems involved in distraction are entirely different from those involved in love. In distraction, there was a much higher level of the newer corticol systems involved with classic attention and distraction.” And yet, love seems to activate a different part of the brain. As Mackey explained, “in love, very primitive, reptilian brain systems that are classically involved with the reward systems that motivate our basic drives were involved”
Are pain and love connected?
The clinical implications are not entirely evident yet, but this study does seem to suggest that pain and love are more intertwined than we may know. According to Bruce Naliboff, co-director of the UCLA Center for Neurovisceral Sciences & Women’s Health who was not involved in the study, a possible next step would be to tease out how much of the decreased pain was related to sexual desire. Aron and Mackey’s study is just one more step in unraveling the complex nature of pain, but it seems that if the next step is a study about sex, researchers will have no shortage of volunteers
Photo thanks to Jessica Garro