What Good is Puppy Love?
How Love Benefits the Brain
I climbed up the door and opened the stairs,
Said my pajamas and put on my prayers,
Then I turned off the bed and crawled into the light
All because you kissed me goodnight!
The first few months of being in love can be a heady, dizzying ordeal. Up is down, down is up. Our partner is “like a drug” — life is rosier, and we feel amazing.
But why? How exactly does puppy love make life better? Researchers took a look at couples in their first 9 months of a relationship and found specific benefits to our brain and the way we interpret our experiences. First, let’s take a look at love as a pain reliever, and how a stable relationship improves pessimistic personality tendencies.
Love, Pain, and Cocaine
Cocaine and powerful pain relievers activate the “feel good” part of your brain — the same reward centers that studies have linked to love. Can love actually act as a drug?
Dr. Arthur Aron, longtime brain and love researcher, was discussing the neural systems involved in love at a conference. He and Dr. Sean Mackey, a pain management researcher from Stanford, realized that these neural systems overlapped with ones involved in pain reduction.
They set out to confirm their hypothesis that passionate love triggers the brain’s reward centers in a way that reduces our perception of physical pain.
For one study, they put up fliers all around Stanford University that said, “Are you in love?” They recruited couples who were in the first 9 months of being wildly in love (according to them).
Subjects held a painfully hot device and reported how much pain they felt. In one condition, they looked at a picture of their romantic partner. In a control condition, they looked at a picture of an acquaintance of the same gender and attractiveness level of their partner (to help isolate the effect of love). A third condition had them do a distracting word association task known to decrease pain.
Looking at a picture of one’s romantic picture indeed decreased feelings of pain compared to the control — 45% decrease when the heat intensity was moderate, and 12% when it was high intensity. The word distraction had the same effect, but MRI scans showed that the brain was activated in higher cortical areas, whereas the puppy love condition activated the brain in its reward centers — the same place that cocaine hits.
So maybe a romantic partner really is like a drug when it comes to pain. But what about the non-physical pain we go through in our everyday life? Our fear of the future, our pessimism, our lack of confidence? It turns out that stable relationships can make our neurotic tendencies more stable as well.
Positive Personality Shifts
Being in a stable relationship for as little as nine months has been shown to decrease neurotic tendencies. What exactly is a neurotic personality like?
Think George Costanza. “Neurotic people are rather anxious, insecure, and easily annoyed. They have a tendency towards depression, often show low self-esteem and tend to be generally dissatisfied with their lives,” Dr. Christine Finn explains. “Neurotic people process influences from the outside world differently.” And by differently, we mean negatively: when they encounter an unclear situation that could be positive, negative, or neutral, they tend to assume it’ll have a negative outcome.
In one study, Dr. Finn and her team followed a 245 young couples for nine months and focused on studying their neurotic tendencies within romantic relationships. They interviewed participants individually four times about their relationship satisfaction and had them evaluate ambiguous partner and relationship situations to see how they interpreted them. They found that over time with a stable relationship, the neurotic tendencies decreased. They were more confident and positive overall.
It seems as though love influences our inner world in positive ways. If your mom doesn’t approve of your new relationship…perhaps science gives its blessing.