Deep down, we all know pain and love are profoundly coupled. Well, according to some Stanford researchers, it turns out pain and love overlap in the brain. And although love can hurt, it turns out love just might actually be a “pain reliever” as well.
In the brain, early stages of passionate love are similar to what drug addicts feel towards their drug of choice. In short, just thinking about the one you love kick starts activity in several regions on the brain – notably the “reward center.”
Because research has established that activation of this “reward center” reduces pain – researchers predicted people in the early stages of passionate love might experience pain reduction when the reward center was triggered by a picture of the person they were “hot” for at that time.
The study itself is sort of involved, but very cool…so bear with me for a moment and everything will become clear…
The Set Up
Stanford University chose students from its own campus, selecting 15 total (7 men, 8 women, average age of 20) who all described themselves as passionately, intensely, deeply in love.
(They had to take a test to prove their level of love, and all scored at least 90 out of 100 on a 9-point scale called the Passionate Love Scale – and all were within the first 1- 9m stage of their relationship).
Subjects brought 3 photos of their beloved, and 3 photos of a personal acquaintance that they found to be equally as attractive as their significant other (and the same sex as their significant other, too).
Because they were testing pain reduction, the researchers had to induce pain.
So, the first step was to establish a ‘moderate’ threshold of pain for each student, using an Advanced Thermal Stimulator – a small device placed into the palm that would generate heat.
Heat was generated into the palm of each student and he or she had to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10 (1 for little pain to 10 for intense pain) and say when they felt a) moderate pain, and b) significant pain.
For the group, 4 was determined to be the average ‘moderate’ pain level, and 7 was the average ‘significant’ pain level. They also established a “no pain” level with the device putting out zero heat.
Subjects were hooked up to an fMRI so researchers could observe brain activity throughout the experiment.
Three possible situations tested pain relief in relation to the following:
- Romantic partner pictures. The romantic partner baseline was established by having the individual look at pictures of their beloved and think only of that person.
- The good looking acquaintance pictures. The second situation involved looking at photos of the attractive acquaintance and thinking of that person – the acquaintance baseline. (The participant had chosen that acquaintance based on the fact that while they were equally as good looking as the beloved person, the tester claimed zero romantic attachment to the person.)
- A distraction control game. The researchers used a word manipulation game that had been previously proven to reduce pain… (For example, one question was: “name all sports played with a ball,” and the person had to list all of the sports he could think of…and yes, this technique is a common, proven tactic for reducing pain because it distracts the participant from the pain at hand).
Subjects all experienced each of the above scenarios under the conditions of no pain, moderate pain, and significant pain.
The article, printed online in October’s PLoS One, breaks down the 54 total trials clearly: “Each condition (partner, acquaintance, and distraction) by pain (none, moderate, high) combination was repeated six times, for a total of 54 randomly ordered trials.”
Viewing pictures of romantic partners and playing the word distraction game both significantly reduced pain in the participants…there was actually zero difference in the amount of pain reduction when comparing the two – both reported the pain going from 4 or 7 down to 1 or 3, respectively, on the pain scale.
However, viewing a non-romantically linked acquaintance did not reduce pain.
So distraction and love appear to be excellent pain relievers!
However, different parts of the brain were triggered to reduce pain during each situation…
During the word distraction game, the right orbitofrontal cortex was activated, which does help reduce pain in the short term.
However, looking at pictures of one’s romantic partner showed reduced BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) activity in certain spots, which lends itself to longer lasting pain relief than the distraction tasks alone.
In sum, this study shows us that there are other cognitive, non-pharmaceutical ways to eliminate pain. This study has added both emotion- and distraction- based methods as ways of reducing pain.
The prediction here then is that the pain reduction from love is longer lasting…
Pass The Passion Phase…
One thing though, this study only examined the most passionate phase of love, the 1-9 month phase…I can’t help but wonder if the passion-reducing love has a limited time offer – can you still reduce pain by looking at your partner’s photo if you’ve been together 10 years? Or 40 years?
A study using older people would better aid the more senior population – those most often affected by chronic pain!
Regardless, this study certainly adds to the range of knowledge on pain, and we must now continue to examine the pathways of the brain linked to pain relief in order to hopefully, some day, be able to eliminate chronic pain once and for all.
Sources: Younger, Jarred, et al. October 2010.“Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems.”PLoS ONE: 5(10): online publication only.
White, Tracie. “Love Takes Up Where Pain Leaves Off, Brain Study Shows.” Inside Stanford Medicine. Stanford School of Medicine, October 2010. http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2010/october/love.html