Love Is the Drug: Staring at a Beloved's Face Lessens Pain

By Eliza Strickland | October 14, 2010 1:46 pm

love-painStaring at your beloved’s face really can take the pain away and make everything better. A small but intriguing study has found that college students who looked at pictures of their beloveds felt less pain than others.

The study, published in PLoS One, was a collaboration between the pain researcher Sean Mackey and the love researcher Arthur Aron, who wondered how their fields might overlap in the brain. First they put out the call for volunteers in the early, passionate stages of a relationship.

The authors recruited 15 Stanford undergrads who were “wildly, recklessly in love,” said Mackey, adding that the recruitment process took “only days. It was the easiest study I’ve ever recruited for,” he said. “Within hours they were all banging on my door, ‘Study us! Study us!’ When you’re in that kind of love, you want the world to know about it.” [HealthDay News]

At the lab, the 15 volunteers either looked at photos of their beloveds, or at photos of an “equally attractive” acquaintance. In a third variation meant to test the impact of a mental distraction, the volunteers were asked to perform a cognitive task like listing sports that aren’t played with a ball. Then the researchers dialed up the pain, using a heated probe which they pressed against each person’s palm.

The photo of the beloved and mental distraction appeared to reduce pain by about the same amount: 36% to 45% for moderate pain, and 12% to 13% for high pain. (The photo of the peer had no effect.) But when the scientists redid the experiment while scanning subjects’ brains with a functional MRI, they saw that the photo and the mental-distraction task activated very different parts of the brain. [Los Angeles Times]

The fMRI scans revealed that the love-induced pain relief was linked to activity in the reward centers of the brain like the amygdala, as well as activity in the limbic areas associated with emotion. In contrast, the distraction-induced pain relief occurred mostly along cognitive pathways.

The study may not lead to any practical treatments in the near future, says Mackey, but it may lead to new avenues of research.

“Will I be going back to my patients and prescribing one passionate love affair every six months? I don’t know if I’m going there,” Mackey said. “But it tells us there’s a lot more to the experience of pain than just the injury.” [Los Angeles Times]

For much more on love and sex on the brain, check out DISCOVER’s special brain issue, on newsstands now. A section on “the science of sex” includes a Carl Zimmer article about where sex lives in the brain, a piece by yours truly on the intellectual component of lust, and an article by Paul Bloom on the rules of attraction.

Related Content:
80beats: Can the Human Body Make Its Own Morphine?
Discoblog: In Terrible Pain? Then Head to an Art Museum!
DISCOVER: Music for Pain
DISCOVER: Men Don’t Feel Women’s Pain

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: emotions, love, pain
  • bigjohn756

    I guess I will have to carry a mirror with me all of the time now.

  • Nemesis

    I just smoke weed so I don’t have to love anyone.

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I’m more than a little worried that Ke$ha lyrics are making it into the titles of science blogs . . . it’s not the end of civilization, but you can see it from here =)

    Just joking, I wonder if there were any undergrads who tried to get their significant others to be involved in this study and got shut down “yeah, I just said I love you because I hate awkward pauses, wildly and wrecklessly doesn’t really describe it”

    ~Rhaco

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @Rhaco: Ha, I was actually going for a reference to the Roxy Music song. I’d somehow never been consciously aware of the Ke$ha song until this moment. Science: it teaches you things!

  • Jason

    I wonder how it relates to parents as well. When you’re a kid and when you were in pain it was almost always straight to mom and of course she always made you feel better.

    Would staring at your mother/father/grandparents reduce pain as well?

  • Brody

    How can a study done with a sample size of “15 undergrads” have any statistical significance at all? Seriously, how does a “study” involving on 7 Stanford men and 8 Stanford women deserve any media attention? Is it just because they used an MRI device?

    The researcher says, “This doesn’t require you to be an undergraduate at a university to fall head-over-heels in love. Even older people can do that.”

    What is he basing that assertion on?

  • John

    This suggests that hospital visitations rights should be determined by one’s experienced loving bond with someone, rather than only by family relations and legal bonds if we consider these visits as, not just a courtesy but, a quantifiable aid to care.

  • Mikky

    “Be a volunteer, you will forget the pain when you are busy.”

  • Tatyana

    What about the blind persons? Will touching do the same as staring?

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