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Scientifically, could love count as an addiction? ©

Scientifically, could love count as an addiction?

Published: 21st February, 2021 at 00:00
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Love actually carries some of the neurological signatures of drug addiction.

As millions of songs, sonnets and so-so rom-coms can attest, love is indeed a powerful thing – particularly when it comes to your brain.


When you're in love, the parts of your brain that are associated with reward light up – whether you're thinking about a beloved or physically reunited with them. And while this sounds fairly positive, these are the same areas that are often linked to addiction.

Considering this, could being in love actually count as an addiction? Probably not.

“While a source of joy, these pathways in the brain also motivate us to engage in certain behaviours. And addiction is simply taking that to a maladaptive level – it’s where this circuitry hijacks the brain,” says Professor Zoe Donaldson, a behavioural neuroscientist.

Love normally does not reach this ‘maladaptive level’ – and it isn’t as detrimental to your health as many recreational drugs.

However, Dr Sandra Langeslag, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of Missouri–St Louis has found a major neurological drawback of being in love: it distracts us. A lot. In fact, her findings indicate intense passionate love is associated with decreased cognitive control.

For instance, in one study she asked participants to perform a short-term memory task while presented with pictures of a beloved, friend or stranger. Those confronted with a picture of a loved one had poorer and slower task performance.

Read more about the science of love:

Donaldson also says comparing love to addiction is useful when explaining human heartbreak, which she describes as similar to drug withdrawal.

"When you lose a particular individual, your desire to be with them probably doesn’t go away. And you can't meet that desire so an intense frustration appears. I think this yearning is in some ways akin to a craving for recreational drugs in the way the pathways within the brain are engaged,” she says.

Can science help you through a break-up?

In short: no. Well, not yet, anyway. However, researchers like Langeslag are investigating this very question.

For instance, in 2019 she conducted a study where participants were asked to reframe their partner in a positive or negative way. The theory was that 'negative reappraisal' – essentially delving into the faults of their ex – would decrease a person’s sadness over their lost relationship. However, she found that prompts to talk about the annoying aspects of an old partner did not reduce negative emotion, as detected in brain scans.

In other words, for the moment, there’s little science can do to mend your broken heart. Feel free to load up Bridget Jones's Diary again.

Read more about the science of love:



Frankie MacphersonIntern Journalist, BBC Science Focus

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