Helen Fisher

I have come to believe that romantic love is an addiction — a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly. And indeed it has all the characteristics of addiction: You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality.

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    Untangling Love Addiction in the Brain

    If love follows a similar cycle to addiction in the brain, how can the pattern be broken?

    by Kate Green Tripp


    After years spent studying the brains of people newly in love, rejected in love, and in long-term love, renowned biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher doesn’t hesitate to equate love and obsession.

    “I have come to believe that romantic love is an addiction — a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly,” says Fisher. “And indeed it has all the characteristics of addiction: You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality.”

    Fisher also believes there’s a biological reason people become hopeless romantics. This particular addiction “evolved millions of years ago to drive us to form a pair bond and send our DNA into tomorrow,” she says. Human beings possess, as a species, an inherent drive to procreate. But whatever the reasons behind why people become stuck on love, experts say the underlying mechanisms operate similarly in the brain as in other kinds of addictions.

    “Getting hooked is really what our brains are about,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of Research and Innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center. A psychiatrist and research affiliate at the MIT, Brewer is widely considered an expert on addiction and the science of self-mastery. “Our brains are prediction machines. When we receive a reward, the first time we get it, they want us to do it again. Over time, with repetition, we go to anticipating that reward as opposed to actually getting it.”

    In other words, looking forward to a reward — in the case of relationships it is love and happiness — becomes enough motivation to repeat the reward-seeking behavior, like texting, flirting, and fantasizing about a love interest. Repeated enough times, the habit loop is born and the idea of Person X is cemented in our minds as an elusive finish line worth reaching for.

    “Our brains are great at anticipating and idealizing as ways to keep us going in our own stories of what is good and best and perfect,” says Brewer. When it comes to love, the more someone fantasizes about imagined bliss with Person X on the heels of positive interaction with them, the deeper they can fall down the rabbit hole of craving.

    Consider the familiar scenario: Person X presents with appealing characteristics. Attraction is triggered. The combination of palpable chemistry and flirtatious correspondence leads to a rewarding experience (a successful date, memorable sex, an affirmed sense of self, or maybe all three). The brain lights up. Person X is essentially invited to become a priority in the brain. This is often based on limited hard data as to who Person X truly is, but instead on significant time spent fantasizing about who they are imagined to be.

    On a daily behavioral level in today’s world, that likely translates into giving extra attention to the ensuing stream of digital back-and-forth with Person X. Every text, ping, call, photo, and sliver of attention initiated (or reciprocated) by Person X commands full attention. And a fair chunk of time between such mini-rewards is also spent ruminating on them.

    From an evolutionary standpoint, this neurological mechanism has served humans well. The brain is hardwired to remember where food is, most importantly. Food is craved (the trigger), then eaten (the behavior), which leads to survival (the reward).

    “The uncertainty of where our next meal will come from triggers the brain to fire dopamine,” explains Brewer. “And dopamine is not a pleasure chemical — that’s a big misnomer in science. It’s when something uncertain happens that we get a dopamine spritz.”

    That spritz, which originates in the ventral tegmental area of the brain (VTA), causes us to feel restless and agitated and driven to quell the unease — essentially to do something. Over time, that dopamine spritz shifts from receipt of a reward to signaling the anticipation of doing a rewarding behavior.

    Fast forward a few million years from the evolution of humans to a globally interactive world accustomed to the tools and tricks of Silicon Valley. There are now countless examples of the trigger-behavior-reward reinforcement loop gone wild. Online dating apps are a prime example.

    “The current system is set up for superficiality and idealization,” says Brewer. “The constant novelty of scrolling through love interests is not unlike a lab rat pressing a lever for food. The dopamine hit comes from not knowing when you’ll land the jackpot — and keeps us scrolling.”

    And for smartphone users with dating apps and related social media profiles in their pocket 24/7, that lever is endlessly available.

    Maybe there’s an upcoming deadline at work, but the allure of a new Instagram direct message from a love interest is too promising to ignore. Each time attention is hijacked by the possibility of connection, and each time we satisfy the dopamine spritz by turning toward the craving, the strength of the habit loop is intensified. And what began as seeking love may start to resemble seeking a high.

    According to Brewer, the trick to breaking a love addiction (or any other, for that matter) isn’t a question of will power. Instead, it turns on a person’s ability to inject mindfulness and curiosity into the situation. It’s about stepping outside the trigger-behavior-reward cycle long enough to notice and probe what it feels like to be hooked.

    “When we’re in the throes of anticipation — if we really look at our experience — we’re totally restless,” says Brewer. “We’re agitated. It’s not actually that fun. We’ll likely notice a reward that is inherently restless, like junk food or the fleeting high from a Facebook like. And how long does that last?”

    Breaking any love-hunger cycle that becomes all-consuming is all about shifting one’s personal definition of reward. If a lasting relationship with another human being is the goal, chances for success improve if the connection feels calm and present — not frenetic and uncertain. Again, distinguishing between the two hinges on a person’s ability to notice the quality of feeling. Describing the high of love versus the landed sense of belonging in love, Brewer says “it’s the difference between the contracted quality of excitement versus the expanded quality of connection.”

    Our brains may be rigged to respond to contraction. It’s up to us to learn that not all rewards are the same.

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