Learning and Memory in Everyday Life

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Written and contributed by Mark Gluck, author of Learning and Memory.

Addicted to Love?

Thinking about the object of his desire, Sam’s heart starts to pound, his palms get sweaty, and he feels excitement and anticipation. Denied access, he becomes irritable, has trouble sleeping, and develops an overwhelming obsession that swamps all other interests.

Based on the above description, Sam might be a cocaine addict. Or he might just be passionately in love. Humans viewing pictures of their beloved show increased brain activity in areas including the dorsal striatum, the VTA/SNc, and the orbitofrontal cortex (Aron et al., 2005; Xu et al., 2010). These are some of the same brain areas activated by addictive drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine, and they are different from the brain areas activated by sexual arousal, indicating that romantic love is more than just a drive to obtain sex (Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2005). Viewing pictures of a romantic partner can even produce pain relief, apparently by activating reward centers in the brain that overrule the simultaneous processing of pain (Younger, Aron, Parke, Chatterjee, & Mackey, 2010).

If romantic love activates the same reward circuits as cocaine, can it be just as addictive? Individuals experiencing intense romantic infatuation can display behaviors reminiscent of drug seeking: pursuit of the beloved to the exclusion of other activities, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, and even impulsiveness and poor decision making—leading, for example, to crimes of passion (Frascella, Potenza, Brown, & Childress, 2010). On the other hand, just because romantic love shares some brain circuitry with cocaine and can elicit some of the same behaviors doesn’t necessarily justify calling love an “addictive substance.” Not everything that elicits reward-seeking behavior or that provokes withdrawal symptoms qualifies for that label. (You seek out water when you’re thirsty, and you experience distress if you go too long without; yet would you consider yourself “addicted” to water?) Many experts believe that the depression and grief that accompany a breakup are a normal part of life— not evidence of an addictive disorder.

Nonetheless, some individuals do display excessive devotion to their beloved and experience severe withdrawal symptoms after romantic rejection, including clinical depression and (in rare cases) suicide or homicide. It is possible that, just as some individuals can try cocaine and walk away while others become pathologically addicted, so too some individuals can survive a painful breakup while others remain trapped in a state of loss. Debate continues regarding whether such individuals should be diagnosed with a pathological addiction (Reynaud, Karila, Blecha, & Benyamina, 2010).

As research elucidates the brain substrates of drug addiction and suggests therapies (including medication) to reduce the cravings associated with drug withdrawal, should we consider using the same medications to help reduce cravings following romantic rejection? If you’ve ever had your heart broken by a failed romance, would you have taken advantage of such a treatment if it existed?