Love on the Brain or the Brain in Love

Happy Valentines day special.  Those of us in partnerships are likely out at some overcrowded restaurant right now getting lousy service.  Some of you are getting DOWN.   The rest of us are wishing we were getting down.  Me, I am writing this blog and researching the neuroscience of love.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher placed people in love in a functional MRI and found the same pattern as when one is having a rush from cocaine.  She claims that three brain systems are working with respect to love.  We are designed to look for variety (hence the overwhelming popularity of porn (see prior post)), but that romantic love serves the purpose of "focusing our mating energy on just one individual at a time".  Attachment serves the purpose of "allowing us to tolerate that person long enough to raise a child as a team".  I would summarize this in 3 words  eye candy, obsession, and submission.  Ok, that was 4 words.  Just kidding... the three concepts are lust, romantic love and attachment.

I was glad to hear her dispel  the myth that men cheat more than women... "who do you think they are cheating with... do the math!"  The divorce rate in America is actually declining according to Fisher, however, it may be due to younger couples are less likely to get married and when they do they are older and more mature in their choices.  She thinks this is an opportune time to make good marriage.  Best case is when you lust, have romantic love, and attachment to the same person.

She then ends with a commentary on antidepressants.  Pervasive in our society, and used long term.  If you raise serotonin you suppress dopamine.  This kills romantic love, orgasm, and the ability to form stable attachments as they are all mediated by the dopaminergic systems.  I definitely agree with her on this point based on my observations with my patients.  I treat many mood/mind disorders in my clinic and have found this to be true.  They feel Ok, but they don't feel that deep urge to merge with another.

Love hurts,  a good song and a common song theme.  Love and pain pathways go together.  When we fall out of love dopamine levels plummet and you go through withdrawal.  Just being dumped, you end up loving them harder according to these functional MRI studies,  you crave them even more!   You may even take more risks to get their love at this point.  Try something novel and risky to get them.  At least you will get some dopamine from this.  Sound familiar?  Love is something we need and it can become an addiction.  Fisher thinks that love is the most addictive substance on earth.  I agree with her and can cite personal experience!  I will decline to tell the stories here, but those of you who know me well have experienced the over the top creativity elicited from my dopamine highs!  Never a boring moment with me around...

All these insights may point to why abused women may stay with their abuser, they may be addicted to them.  I have not found a study on this yet, but would love to test this hypothesis.  Unfortunately the most current example in my mind is the late Whitney Houston.  Why would such a talented, wealthy, and successful woman stay with Bobby Brown?  Love, and likely dopamine.  I cried today after listening to her song "I will always love you".  It was not the words, it was the energy, that song shifts energy.  Or maybe it completely captured my emotional state.  Transcendent.  Criticise her all you want, that album went 4X platinum, she touched more people than any of her critics.  Released my stagnant emotions better than any acupuncture treatment.  That is the power of music.  I would love to watch my brain on music.  Music is medicine, and likely could be an addiction... ever play a song over and over... just like rats pressing the lever for cocaine... "and IIIIII willllll allllllways love yyooooooooooouuuuuu"  I get a dopamine hit off that one!  I am also suspecting that all these singers get dopamine dis regulation from channeling those songs from the collective unconscious.  They get hooked on all kinds of stuff trying to re-balence their brain chemistry.  Check out Steven Tyler's (how is he still alive?  Angels according to him) biography for an inner look at dopamine gone wild.  All that coke, women, amphetamines, you name it... The biggest high for him?  Writing songs and singing them in front of thousands of people.  Makes me wonder about the dopamine plummet as they loose the spotlight.  And all the pharmaceutical crap they are put on to treat it.

For those reading these blogs, clearly I am obsessed with dopamine right now.  The reason is simple.  Patients coming in with dopaminergic problems are hard to treat and I see alot of them.  There is no reductionist way to treat this, no magic pill to shift this balance.  Educating patients is costly due to time involved.  I wonder how the dopaminergic system evolved and why is it so hard to treat?  I suspect it is because this little neurotransmitter may be the link between the mind and spirit.  When we don't treat it well the results can be, well,  heartbreaking.  RIP Whitney.  Comments and treatment ideas are much appreciated.