The Love Drug

Since man first walked the Earth, the quest for love has been a constant preoccupation and the loss of love has been a source of the most dramatic events, including suicide, homicide, and even terrible wars. Breakups can be perceived as failure and a promise of future loneliness, and they can have severe consequences such as depression and anxiety. Rejection in love can in fact be so dramatic, that it has been compared to withdrawal from addictive substances.

Characteristics of romantic love that make it akin to an addiction include mood swings, obsession, emotional dependence, loss of self-control and other potentially dangerous behavior patterns. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, a reputable expert on love and the brain, this addiction can become very destructive when the object of love is withdrawn, much in the same way as what happens when addicts stop taking their drug of choice.

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuropsychology attempted to prove that what happens in the brain after a breakup is very similar to what takes place during an addict’s withdrawal period. This was done by comparing brain imaging from people going through a breakup with similar data from cocaine craving individuals, which showed some remarkable coincidences.

The scientists behind this research believe that their findings present further evidence that the passion of romantic love is not an emotion but rather “a goal-oriented motivation state,” as stated by Dr. Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University as early as 1991.

Although the samples of this and other similar studies are rather small, the neurological evidence does present a very strong case. In fact, when subjects were shown photographs of their former lover, the areas of the brain appearing stimulated included:

  • the ventral tegmental, which is in control of motivation and reward;
  • the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which are associated with the dopaminergic reward system of cocaine addiction; and
  • the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate, both associated with physical pain and distress.

In a rather remarkable turn of events, it would appear that romantic love, arguably the highest of human emotions has been proven to have some very politically incorrect connections with certain drugs that enjoy a far less flattering reputation.

For all the different assumptions and anxieties people from all the different cultures of the world may encounter in the quest for a soulmate and for all the high art that romantic love has fathered throughout history, it would seem that, after all, we may well be all addicted as Cerati claimed in his song.


Aron A., Aron E. Love and sexuality. In: Sexuality in Close Relationships, edited by McKinney K., Sprecher S. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991, 25–48.

Fisher HE, Brown LL, Aron A, Strong G, & Mashek D (2010). Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of neurophysiology, 104 (1), 51-60 PMID: 20445032

Bartels A, & Zeki S (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport, 11 (17), 3829-34 PMID: 11117499

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life
See All Posts By The Author