[Disclaimer: I have no degrees in Psychology, Biology or Anthropology. I would love to receive comments, clarifications or corrections.]
I was never insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched
- Edgar Allan Poe
Love - a feeling succinctly defined by the Oxford dictionary as “an intense liking for another person”. An emotion intense enough to form the backdrop of literary and cinematic tragedies - Romeo and Juliet, Joel and Clementine and my personal favourite, Eloisa to Abelard*. What motivated the extreme actions taken by these characters? What could cause this unbearable wanting to be with another?
The answer, as with most questions dealing with other feelings one experiences, lies in the brain. Specifically, in a part of the brain called the reward (or meso-limbic) pathway*. As dopamine runs through the pathway, you experience an intense wanting. When in love, this wanting is for another person. An interesting point to note here that in order to say “I love you” in Spanish, you say “te quiero”, which is literally “I want you”. Love: an intense wanting. However, love is not unique in evoking that wanting in the human brain.
I think about it all the time
I’m all strung out, my heart is fried
I just can’t get you off my mind, because, yes,
Your love… your love is my drug
The words of eloquent electro-pop poet Ke$ha clue us in, and so, we delve into the domain of drugs. Years of work by psychiatrist Nora Volkow pinpointed the reason drugs addicted people - the grip they hold on the minds of users is also fuelled (as you may have guessed) by dopamine*. Many drugs - like cocaine… and all other known addictive drugs - work by artificially increasing the relative levels of dopamine in the brain. The brain also “learns” to associate the cues (drugs) with the rewards (highs). Later, when you are presented with the cue, the brain causes dopamine levels to increase - making you want the drug and causing addictive behaviour*. This intense wanting for drugs is not very dissimilar to the intense wanting experienced when a person feels when in love. It is also very similar to another feeling we experience on a far more regular basis.
Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it wants
- Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe’s use of hunger as a metaphor for wanting, although likely coincidental, is near perfect*. In addition to the role it plays in love and drug addiction, dopamine also motivates the human brain to want to eat food*. Dopamine flowing through the reward pathway is what causes us to seek out food and eat it. When the regulatory processes in the body controlling this break down, it may lead to disorders like obesity and anorexia. Sugary and fatty foods are particularly strong dopamine inducers. And just like with drugs, the brain conditions itself to increase dopamine levels based on the stimulus - in this case, the food itself. This would explain why after a bad break up you are able to find solace in the nearest tub of ice cream. Just like with drug withdrawal, your brain had “adapted” to the high levels of dopamine by desensitizing to the “cue”. But, with the cue absent, the low dopamine leaves your brain reeling, and stuffing yourself with sugary treats allows you to feel that high once again. However, you may have healthier alternatives…
Love is a feeling so ubiquitous that it has inspired decades of music - from 2000 BC to now - spanning genres from pop to heavy metal and from all parts of the world. And, as luck would have it, recent research shows that music serves not only as a sink to write away all that dopamine, it may very well act as a source causing dopamine release in the brain.
However, dopamine is also released by a wide variety of other activities. For instance, dopamine plays a central role in gambling addiction. And the compulsive need you feel to check your cellphone or Facebook? That’s driven by dopamine too. The “high” you felt (or will feel) during endless sleepless nights in college is due to sleep deprivation increasing dopamine levels.
All these different sources of dopamine release give me pause - might it be possible to replace the craving caused by a negatively addicting source (like cocaine) with a positively addicting one (like music)? The answer is left as an exercise to the reader.
*I also enjoy 500 Days of Summer and Before Sunrise
*Specifically, for early-stage romantic love
*Although the name “dope”amine may seem fitting, the connection is coincidental. Dopamine comes from DOPA (DiOxypPhenylAlanine) + amine
*There are other factors that contribute to causing addictive behaviour as well
*If not for anything else, for this article
*The levels of dopamine are controlled by other hormones like ghrelin, insulin, leptin, etc.
Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction N. D. Volkow, G. J. Wang, J. S. Fowler, D. Tomasi and R. Baler