Next time you go to the dentist, you may want to bring a photo of your romantic partner. A new study suggests that the euphoria we feel when falling passionately in love can serve as a form of pain relief.
In the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers from Stanford University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook recruited Stanford students who were “intensely in love” in the first nine months of a relationship. While the students lay in an fMRI brain scanner, the researchers exposed them to different levels of heat—some moderate, some pretty painful.
At the same time they were feeling the heat, the students in the brain scanner also either viewed pictures of their romantic partner or of an acquaintance who was similar in age and attractiveness to their partner, or they completed a word-association task previously found to reduce pain. Participants rated their pain immediately after being exposed to the heat.
When exposed to moderate and high levels of heat, the participants reported feeling less pain if they were looking at photos of their romantic partner. What’s more, their brains showed a spike in activity in the brain’s reward-processing regions—the regions associated with the pleasure we get from sex or good food—and a decrease in pain-processing regions.
The distracting word game also helped reduce pain by roughly the same amount as viewing photos of partners, and participants showed reduced activity in pain-processing brain regions while performing the word task. However, the task didn’t activate the reward-processing brain regions.
From these results, the researchers conclude that the experience of pleasure suppressed participants’ feelings of pain while viewing photos of romantic partners, but the experience of pain relief doesn’t necessarily produce feelings of pleasure and reward; if it did, those pleasure regions would have lit up during the word task as well.
This suggests that there are multiple ways to reduce pain, and the pleasure we get from romantic love might be one of them.
That said, don’t throw away your aspirin just yet: The researchers still haven’t pinpointed exactly how this love-induced pain relief occurs in the brain. But once they do, they write, it “may allow us to identify new targets and methods for producing effective pain relief.” In the meantime, it can’t hurt to carry a snapshot of your partner in your wallet, just in case.