Can love really conquer pain?

An extra from How much does it hurt?

Experiments on newly infatuated people show that passion could be a natural painkiller.

“Let the lovelorn lover cure insomnia,” wrote the poet Ogden Nash, “By murmuring AMOR VINCIT OMNIA.” And although the phrase is a mangling of the original in Virgil’s Tenth Eclogue (“Omnia vincit amor”), it has passed into our language as a romantic truism. But can love conquer pain as well as everything else?

The Human Pain Research Laboratory at the Stanford School of Medicine set out to determine which was stronger – sex or suffering, lust or laceration – when they conducted an extraordinary experiment in 2010. 

The department head Dr Sean Mackey and his colleagues posted flyers around the university, asking for volunteers who were “madly in love”. From a startlingly large number of applicants, they selected 15 students and put them through a standard procedure at the laboratory: applying painful stimulation by heating up a small thermal device strapped to each student’s arm, until the students registered discomfort. Then they showed each student photographs of his or her beloved, intermingling them with photos of equally attractive acquaintances. The students reported that their pain was appreciably lessened when looking at images of their lovers. 

Test results showed that the chemicals the body produces in the early stages of a love affair produce effects on the spinal cord, effectively blocking pain messages from reaching the brain. But it has been clinically proven for years that giving a patient something to ‘distract’ their brain results in them feeling less pain. So is love no more than a distraction?

To find out, Mackey and his colleagues introduced an additional factor. They set each subject a ‘word generation’ task, in which, while having heat pain applied to their arm, they had to “think about every sport that doesn’t involve a ball”. As the volunteers struggled to come up with ‘ice hockey’ or ‘judo’, it was found that they were distracted to about the same degree as they had been when shown photos of their love-objects. But crucially, different parts of the brain were involved.

While the ‘distraction’ experiment triggered “higher-level cortical brain systems”, the ‘love’ experiment engaged quite different, very deep-seated brain systems that involve our most basic cravings and desires. And these systems, Mackey reported, “are rich in dopamine neurotransmitters. So… love does affect [the patient] like a painkilling drug.” 

Astonishingly, it turns out that, as Roxy Music once averred, love is the drug. As long as it’s true love, and passionate, and preferably in the early stages of a relationship. How a patient goes about securing this pleasant state is, unfortunately, a matter beyond science. But Mackey made an interesting counter-suggestion about what could be done with this love drug. “Now we know that love releases chemicals – endogenous opioids – similar to the effects of morphine,” he said. “[We know] there are drugs that can turn endogenous opioids off. Does that mean we can kill love? That could be interesting for people with unrequited love, or even to treat sexual stalkers…”