Forget Pain Pills, Fall in Love Instead

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Alexa Miller

Do you believe that love conquers all? If you do, you probably won’t be surprised by the following study. It turns out that being in love can actually dull pain perception. What’s more, it works in a different way that painkillers do.

Dr. Sean Mackey, chair of the pain management division at Stanford University, has been studying pain for his entire career. He has become an expert at analyzing how the brain reacts to pain, by relying on functional MRI (fMRI), which are sophisticated brain scans that can show which areas of the brain are active while subjects are given specific tasks, such as looking at pictures or feeling mild bursts of pain. But it wasn’t until he happened to share a hotel room at a neuroscience conference with a researcher who had spent just as much time exploring the biological basis of love that he thought about testing what role love could have in regulating pain. (More on 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives).

His roommate had studied how painful love can be emotionally, but Mackey wondered if love could influence how we experience physical pain. To find out, he recruited volunteers at the university who were in the first stages of new and passionate love (remember that feeling?). The response was overwhelming. “It was the easiest study I recruited for in my life,” he says. “Within hours of putting up the ads, we have dozens of couples banging on our doors, saying we are in love, study us.”

To make the study manageable, he limited the volunteers to 15 couples. He asked each to bring in pictures of their beloved, along with a picture of an equally attractive platonic acquaintance. The friend’s picture would serve as a control, to adjust for any effect that attractiveness might have on the subject’s reaction to the person. Each of the volunteers then went through the fMRI scanner, and while they were in the machine, they were shown each of the pictures in succession. As an added control, Mackey and his team also asked the students to complete a mental task, to make sure that merely paying attention to the picture wasn’t confounding his results. The students had to think of as many sports that did not involve using a ball as they could. And while they were doing all of this, they were also holding a heated device in one hand that would get hot enough to cause them mild pain. (More on Photos: Married for 50 Years: Love Ever After)

In comparing the way the brain reacted to the heat while it process each of the three tasks, Mackey found that looking at a loved one allowed the subjects to withstand greater pain than looking at a friend or completing the mental skill test. Even more intriguing, he says was that love activated different parts of the brain than the normal analgesic pathways.

“Love was engaging our very deep, old and primitive reptilian system that involves basic needs, wants and cravings,” he says, as compared to the mental task, which recruited more higher thinking pathways and diverted the brain’s perception of pain by occupying it with more intellectual pursuits. “We found a nice link between the reward system and the pain modulating system, suggesting that love does really work in reducing pain.”

The connection, he believes, is part of the body’s most basic response to regulate pain. “Pain is probably the earliest most primitive experience around, going all the way back to single celled organisms,” he says. “Pain serves a great purpose by telling us to avoid something potentially harmful. But if we had to listen to that signal every time we felt an ache or pain, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. So over millennia, we developed a reward system that causes us to seek and change our behavior so we can capture rewarding things to counterbalance the pain.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the same reward system is activated by addictive drugs such as cocaine, since the reinforcing nature of the reward, whether it comes from a drug or from love, keeps us coming back for more. (More on See TIME’s top 10 celebrity-relationship flameouts).

Mackey certainly isn’t advocating abusing drugs as a way to control pain, but what about finding passionate love? “Am I going back to my practice and start prescribing one passionate love affair every six months for my pain patients?” he asks. “Who knows, maybe.”

Even if it can’t be prescribed or put into a pill, he says the power of love in regulating pain is something that more people can take advantage of. “The simplest way of utilizing this is to pay more attention to the role of loving relationships in patients with chronic pain. Here we have a simple system that can be engaged when people are in loving relationships, and helping people maintain that spark, that passion may ultimately help them with their pain,” he says. “The amount of pain we experience may be modulated by a large number of factors, and now we know that love is one of those factors.”

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