Experiments have proven that the emotional stress of a failed relationship can actually exceed the pain of physical trauma. Volunteers whose relationships had ended against their wishes took part in a study by University of Michigan in which their brains were scanned as they were both touched by a hot probe and then asked to look at pictures of their ex. The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “On the surface, spilling a hot cup of coffee on yourself and thinking about how rejected you feel when you look at the picture of a person that you recently experienced an unwanted break up with may seem to elicit very different types of pain,” writes researcher Ethan Kross. “But this research shows that they may be even more similar than initially thought.”
Other research has shown lost love to trigger similar reactions in the brain as when kicking a drug addiction and even to be comparable to grief. In November it was reported that the parents of former American Football star Doug Flutie had died within an hour of each other. Last winter, a poignant photo of Californian couple Alexander and Jeanette Toczko melted hearts across the globe when it was reported the two, both in their 90s and wed for 75 years, died holding hands. Surviving spouses actually have up to a 66% higher chance of dying in the first three months following the passing of their partner due to a phenomenon known as Broken Heart Syndrome, but there is no concrete scientific evidence as to its cause. “It’s possible it’s a grief-related mechanism,” Harvard professor Dr S. V. Subramanian tells Reuters Health. “Or that providing care for the sick spouse causes illnesses in the surviving spouse. Or, as one’s spouse gets sicker, the surviving spouse stops taking care of their own health.” On the flipside, being in long, strong relationships has also been shown to lead to longer, healthier lives.
Love, the cause of such pleasure, and, alas, such ultimate pain. It has troubled artists, philosophers, poets, painters and writers like perhaps nothing else. But what, exactly, is it? In 2010, a revolutionary study by Syracuse University named The Neuroimaging of Love discovered falling in love to arouse the same euphoric feeling as cocaine. Similarly, a recent Chinese study revealed the areas of the brain involved with emotion, motivation and reward to be linked with feelings of love also. Rather amusingly, being in love actually effects the brain in a similar fashion to mental illness — perhaps excusing all of that irrational behaviour — and, according to one US paper, affects men faster than women.
Renowned anthropologist Helen Fisher of New Jersey’s Rutgers University proposes that hormones play a significant part in the process of falling love, of which there are three stages: lust, attraction and attachment. Sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen drives our lust while the feel-good chemicals including dopamine and serotonin handle the attraction. Come the hook, line and sinker stage of attachment, vasopressin and oxytocin take over, two hormones released by the nervous system — the latter of which also, incidentally, helps bond mother and child. A known reducer of blood pressure (and also released when we cuddle), oxytocin has, fascinatingly, proved that it may not just be humans that fall in love.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
– Lao Tzu –
Professor and author, Paul Zak, has conducted extensive studies of oxytocin, which he calls the ‘moral molecule’ as it is such a motivating force for compassionate acts (and so his book is titled The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity). His studies have shown that levels of oxytocin increase between a tenth to a half during regular human engagement, depending on the strength of their relationships. Interestingly, and certainly surprisingly, only 30% of his study group showed an increase in oxytocin after playing with cats or dogs, though both animals did reduce stress levels in human subjects (dogs more so). But Zak then conducted similar tests between the animals and the results were quite extraordinary. “I obtained blood samples from a domestic mixed-breed terrier and a goat that regularly played together,” he writes for The Atlantic. “…we found that the dog had a 48% increase in oxytocin. This shows that the dog was quite attached to the goat. The moderate change suggests the dog viewed the goat as a ‘friend’. More strikingly was the goat’s reaction to the dog: it had a 210% increase in oxytocin. At that level of increase, within the framework of oxytocin as the ‘love hormone’, we essentially found that the goat might have been in love with the dog… That animals of different species induce oxytocin release in each other suggest that they, like us, may be capable of love.”