Love Can Be More Potent than Cocaine

Love Can Be More Potent than Cocaine

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This post was originally published on March 11, 2015.

Love. It’s the source of many Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, the fuel that fires classic Italian operas and the subject of many intense Björk songs. It’s the age-old curse of humankind that brings many people to their knees. And today, the words “love addiction” pepper conversations almost as often as “drug addiction.”

It might seem that the poor folks who struggle with love addiction—which is not the same as sex addiction, although they can be linked—have some mommy or daddy issues, among other psychological problems. But brain scans reveal that even the soundest of minds are still vulnerable to the irrationality that new love brings.

Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster

When you’re newly in love—or love-obsessed—you’re not ingesting any sort of drug, so you’d think there’s nothing chemical to be addicted to. Unfortunately for us foolish mortals, love hyperstimulates the amygdala, also known as the “fear center” in the brain. You can think of this part of the brain as reptilian—it dates back millions and millions of years before the evolution of the neocortex, which is responsible for logical thought and reasoning (AKA the opposite of love).

Though long-term and committed relationships seem to be the hope of those newly in love, the reality is just the opposite. New love thrives on mystery, sexual attraction, unpredictability and a measure of madness, large or small depending on your disposition. This is what excites the amygdala and keeps people hooked. The day-to-day, often humdrum, reality of a real relationship is the exact opposite of the emotional roller coaster of the “honeymoon period.”

Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who led a series of brain imaging studies on the brain chemistry of early love, found three neurotransmitters—serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine—to be major neurobiological players in the early stages of romance. When you “fall in love,” norepinephrine pumps you full of manic energy, serotonin makes you feel confident and dopamine gives you extra pleasure. So falling in love is a sort of instant imbalance of brain chemistry—just like when someone has snorted a line of blow.

But if you can believe it, the love drug is almost more potent.

That’s because people whose brains are overloaded with dopamine are apt to have imaginary spiritual experiences, concoct connections between events that don’t really exist and read between the lines of every text, email or OKCupid message, looking for signs that the object of desire is ready to die for you.

Dopamine Danger Zone

With rationality on the sidelines, those deluged with dopamine may make all sorts of foolish and impulsive decisions…like dumping a good job to move across the country to live with someone they’ve met online, buying a bunch of gifts they can’t afford or planning a family with someone they’ve known for all but two months. No, they won’t be riddled with a physiological addiction that’s liable to strip them of money, home and respect, but there’s still a lot on the line when the brain enters the dopamine danger zone.

If you’ve dealt with the new-love crazies, you aren’t necessarily love-addicted or pathological, though it might feel that way. With the unbalanced brain chemistry that results from new love, it makes sense that we often get paranoid, anxious, terrified and euphoric during the first few weeks or months when we just don’t know what’s around the corner—good or bad.

Just as Roxy Music put it so eloquently: “Love is the drug and I need to score.”

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.