This article is from the In-Depth Report Love, Explained: The Science of Romance
60-Second Science

Love Lessens Pain

Contemplating a new love can reduce pain by activating the same brain region that processes addictions and analgesic drugs. Cynthia Graber reports

Singer: “Love Hurts.”

That ’80s power ballad had it all wrong. Love may keep you from hurting.

Two researchers—pain specialist Sean Mackey at Stanford and love specialist Arthur Aron at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook—met at a neuroscience conference. They realized they were talking about the same brain region.

So back at Stanford, researchers recruited 15 undergrads in the early euphoric throes of a relationship. The volunteers had photos of the romantic partner and of an attractive acquaintance. As they looked at the photos, their palms were safely heated to mild pain. Then the volunteers repeated the experiment but were distracted by tasks such as: think of sports that don’t use balls. Previous research found that distraction can ease pain.

Both distraction and the pictures of new loves reduced pain. But, the love photo acted in a totally different area of the brain—the primitive reward system region that lights up where addictive drugs work, and where pain-relieving opioids do their magic. The study was published in Public Library of Science One. [Jarred Younger et al., Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems]

So the next time you’re in pain, maybe you don’t need to pop a pill. Just fall in love.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

To hear a 2008 Scientific American interview with pain researcher Sean Mackey, go to "The Science of Pain"

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