Of Human Bonding

An Anthropologist's View

Love and Madness in Las Vegas

Has romantic love provided the brain circuitry for all addictions?

I just ate a black and white cookie the size of a dinner plate.  But I’m finding it difficult to feel too guilty about it here in Las Vegas, where I have come to make a speech.  In the conference ballroom where I just spoke about love were some 300 addiction counselors.   Outside the ballroom were some 300,000 men and women bent on self destruction now—many carrying drinks as they ambled from one casino to the next, pulled at one-armed bandits, smoked cigarettes, or shoveled in the mounds on their buffet trays.  I’ve had my share of addictions; I’m utterly respectful of the problems of partyland.  But what struck me most about the milling crowd was the ever-present force of romance—the hidden addiction.  

In less than an hour, I saw three brides dressed in white flowing gowns, couples embracing, and parents wheeling baby carriages while holding hands; even the cover of the Welcome to Las Vegas magazine in my hotel room displayed a handsome woman crooning above the caption “The obsession is back.” 

We don’t tend to think of romantic love as an addiction.  But it has all the qualities of an addiction, including intense focus on a particular other, the belief that this individual is special, elation when things are going well, mood swings into despair when things go poorly, the distortion of reality, the willingness to do insane things to win him or her, sexual possessiveness, relapse, craving and obsession.   Someone is camping in your head.  

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Of course, it’s a glorious addiction when things are going well; but when things go poorly, romantic love is, as Emily Dickinson put it, “all we need to know of hell.”  Homicide; suicide; clinical depression: Cupid takes many prisoners. 

And we are beginning to understand why.  With our newest brain scanning experiment, my colleagues and I have found some of the primary centers that become active when someone is in love and rejected in love.  Among them are regions associated with profound addiction.  Romantic love is a primordial drive that evolved to enable our forebears to focus their mating energy on just one person at a time.  It’s magic when it’s right.  But like the black and white cookie I just inhaled, it can blossom into madness. Perhaps the evolution of this powerful brain system for mating and reproduction has provided the basic circuitry for many of the other addictions to blossom too.

 

 

Helen Fisher is a Research Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Rutgers. She has written extensively on the biology, evolution, and cross-cultural expression of sexuality and romantic love.

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