Psychologist JoAnn Deak opened her talk at a recent 92Y event by noting the similarities between chemical mechanisms activated from love and a high from heroin.
“We now know that the chemical changes in parts of the brain when you’re in love are equal to that of heroin doses or high cocaine doses, so you kind of know. If you have to ask if you’re in love, you’re not,” Deak said, to a smattering of chuckles.
Is her statement all that off? Ask poet Jim Carroll—if he weren’t dead he’d likely tell you heroin was his very first love. Or Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking, A Love Story, she’d tell you the same about spirits—but she’s dead, too. It’s one thing for writers to equate their addictions with love or for Shakespeare to call love “merely a madness,” but for scientists to do so is an entirely new spin on the once ephemeral subject.
The chemical changes Deak is referencing are most likely related to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter once referred to by neuroscientist Vaughn Bell as the chemical equivalent of Kim Kardashian. We’re supposedly awash in dopamine—it’s released when we eat cupcakes, fire guns, have sex, shoot smack, play roulette, or die on a SoulCycle. Now, it’s being associated with love and addiction.
Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical released by neurons sent across synapses to other neurons. While this may sound simple, each neuron can communicate with nearly 10,000 other neurons; there are close to 100 billion neurons in the human brain. This leaves us with a network of nearly 1,000 trillion possible connections. That’s more than the number of stars in the Milky Way, jammed into three pounds of tissue floating in your skull. To further complicate this byzantine organ, there are different types of dopamine receptors thought to be responsible for different functions.
Does science back Deak’s claim, that because dopamine is released by drugs and love that they have anything to do with one another? Researchers do, in fact, call love a “natural addiction,” in that we become addicted to our partners and crave them and feel withdrawal when they’re not around.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher is a senior researcher at the Kinsey Institute who studies love and addiction. In 2014 she wrote a book chapter called “The Tyranny of Love.” According to her research, fMRI scans “indicate that feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s ‘reward system,’” she goes on to write, “specifically dopamine pathways associated with energy, focus, motivation, ecstasy, and craving, including primary regions associated with addiction.”
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