At some point in life, most of us will face a major mental-health crisis. It is called love.
Science is beginning to pay more attention to the chemical storm that romantic love can trigger in our brains. Recent studies of brain scans show that being in love causes changes in the brain that are strikingly similar to serious health problems like drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This doesn't mean love is bad for you. There is a growing body of research that shows how love and lasting relationships are an important determinant in long-term health. And the breakdown of a marriage or relationship can exact an enormous toll on a person's well-being. But knowing that love can make you crazy — at least in the short term — gives us clues about how to improve relationships and rekindle the romantic love that first brought a couple together.
"The brain system involved in romantic love is powerful," says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at New Jersey's Rutgers University who has led much of the research into love's impact on the brain. "Everything that is going on in the brain, everything that happens with romantic love has a chemical basis."
Fisher has studied love by looking at people's brains using magnetic-resonance imaging machines. A recent study also looked at 15 subjects who were deeply in love but were nursing broken hearts. While in the scanner, they viewed "neutral" pictures of someone they knew but for whom they didn't have intense romantic feelings. Then they were shown a picture of their beloved.
Compared with the neutral photos, a lover's picture triggers the dopamine system in the brain — the same system associated with pleasure and addiction. But the brain images of those scorned in love also give us clues as to why the breakdown of a relationship can trigger serious health problems. The subjects dealing with failed relationships showed activity in the dopamine system — suggesting they maintained intense feelings for their loved one. But they also showed activity in brain regions associated with risk taking, controlling anger and obsessive-compulsive problems. Notably, the scans showed activity in one part of the brain linked with physical pain.
Studies in Italy looking at blood levels of the brain chemical serotonin have suggested that love and mental illness have much in common. They compared serotonin levels of people recently in love; patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder; and a "control" group that was neither. The researchers found that the love-struck participants showed a drop in serotonin levels similar to those with obsessive-compulsive problems.
Using brain scans to study emotional changes is still a new science. But the images signal the potential toll of relationship problems. "It's not a good combination," notes Fisher. "You're feeling intense romantic love, you're willing to take big risks, you're in physical pain, obsessively thinking about a person and you're struggling to control your rage. You're not operating with your full range of cognitive abilities. It's possible that part of the rational mind shuts down."
The dramatic changes evident on the brain scans may help explain bizarre behavior that is often associated with love. It can also help explain why marital problems are such a serious health worry. Studies show that people in troubled relationships are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure.
For most people, the intensity of romantic love fades with time and is replaced by powerful feelings of attachment. But understanding the brain patterns of the newly in love can teach us how to rekindle romance and boost the health of long-term relationships.
Studies show that trying something new with a spouse can go a long way toward reigniting love. In one study, couples were assigned a weekly activity they both found new and exciting — such as sailing or taking an art class. Another group did pleasant but familiar activities, such as dinner with friends. Based on answers to relationship tests, the couples doing new things showed far more improvement in the quality of their marriage after 10 weeks than couples who did the same things every week. The lesson is that sharing new experiences with your spouse appears to trigger changes in the brain that mimic the early days of being in love.
"We know that novelty and new experiences engage the dopamine system, and when it's associated with your partner it creates a link with the partner," says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at New York's Stony Brook University who conducted the study. "It creates a dramatic increase in the sense of passion and romance."