Study: Love affects body like a painkiller

If you’ve ever experienced the passionate highs of a new (or consistently exciting) relationship, you might not find the results of this small study surprising.

A “longtime researcher of the science of love” at SUNY Stony Brook (which, by the way, totally sounds like a line) and a scientist at Stanford recently hooked up (platonically) to study the effects of love and romance, particularly the new and overwhelming kind, on the way the body handles pain. The study controlled for hotness, using images of both an attractive acquaintance and the subject’s object of affection to measure how feelings associated with love affect the perception of physical discomfort.

15 total subjects were tested, and each brought with them six photos- three of their “beloved,” and three of a hottie friend. Then the researchers inflicted moderate to high degrees of pain on the subjects by applying heat to their palms while the subjects gazed at either a picture of their friend, or of the acquaintance. In addition to the images of the friend and the lover, distracting tasks were employed to also provide a pain reducing result.

Dr. Sean Mackey at Stanford describes the effects of the three on subjects’ pain levels:

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.”

Dr. Mackey suggested that while applying the findings directly might be challenging, existing “loving relationships” could prove useful in those managing pain.