Why You Can’t Always Feel When Love Hurts
Maybe love isn't just blind; maybe it's also numb.
Posted January 6, 2011
The fMRI has come in handy for researchers wanting to know more about what happens when we're falling in love. In the past, psychologists had to rely entirely on self-report when trying to understand what people feel from one moment to the next. Now we can take a picture.
The advent of fMRI technology makes it easier than ever to see what happens to the brain in love. It's also inspired a whole slew of studies in which volunteers are hooked up to devices designed to shock, scare, or burn them. While this merely resurrects the image many of us psychologists had hoped to put to rest once and for all—that of the mad scientist gleefully marching people across dangerous bridges, ordering them to administer shocks, or hooking them up with as many intrusive and uncomfortable electrodes and probes as good grant money can buy—the latest of these studies could tell us a lot about why it's so easy to ignore the little hurts and slights our partners dole out when we're busy fawning over them.
Arthur Aron, PhD, at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Sean Mackey, PhD, at Stanford University, recently recruited fifteen newly smitten undergraduates willing to be subjected to various levels of discomfort—in this case, by heating their palms to "an uncomfortable temperature." Nice. The purpose of the study: to find out if merely looking at a photo of their loved one would have any effect on the subjects' experience of pain. The undergrads reported no change in their level of pain while staring at the photo of an acquaintance, but when they had a chance to ogle their loved one's image, something amazing happened: they felt less pain. A closer look at the fMRI images revealed a kind of neurological anesthetic at work. As soon as the love-struck subjects glimpsed their loved one, the reward center of their brains started to light up.
This study arrives against the backdrop of other, similar ones in which volunteers in committed, loving relationships were administered "mild shocks," either while holding their partner's hand or toughing it out on their own. When they had a chance to hold their partner's hand, amazingly, the subjects reported less pain than when they didn't have the comfort of a loved one. Their fMRI image revealed that when the volunteers held hands with their loved ones during the shock, the pain centers of the brain were relatively quiet; in contrast, when they had to go it alone, their pain centers lit up like a Christmas tree. (Holding a stranger's hand reduced the intensity of the pain, too, but less so than holding a partner's).
For over a hundred years, beginning with Freud, researchers and theorists have explored the phenomenon of "idealization," in which we view our loved ones through such rose colored glasses it seems they can do no wrong. Blinded by the glow of romantic love (or the love of one's children), we tend to miss the faults, the disappointments, the slights—minor and sometimes even major—in the people we love the most. Now it appears there may be a powerful neurological component to love-blindness; and if the pain we feel, not just at the hands of a wild-eyed experimenter wielding electrodes, but at the hands of a loved one, remains subject to the same analgesic influence seen in these studies, maybe love isn't just blind; maybe it's also numb.
Perhaps this is why when I'm trying to help people tune into what's wrong with an exciting new relationship, I run up against a peculiar sort of amnesia: the bitter dissapointment about being "blown off" by a love interest may simply vanish from one session to the next, replaced, puzzlingly, by a loving paean—an adoring catalogue of of their date's many gifts and accomplishments. When asked about the pain and anger of the previous week, these clients often pause, dumbfounded, and say something like. "What do you mean?" If pressed for an answer, they might even offer an admission of sorts: "I guess I'm not as upset anymore."
Mind you, there's still hope for the love-numb out there. A strong network of friends, who may vividly remember your date's hurtful or disappointing behaviors even when you can't, can sometimes cut through the cloud of dopamine (linked to the reward center) and oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone," linked to feelings of relaxation and trust) casting a giddy haze over your nervous system. Your best friends may not always be able to tell you how to address the hurts or disappointments, but they can at least remind you that they're real. Journaling also seems to be quite effective. Somehow, it's a lot harder to engage in idol-worship when your staring at your own stark descriptions of pain and confusion. I've even had people write down, on the back of my business card, all the moments of anger and disappointment they seem to forget every time they turn starry eyed. My purpose isn't to become what Yalom calls love's executioner; it's to help people remember both the good and the bad about the person they're with, so they can make an informed choice. There may be a lot of terrific things about your budding relationship, but there may be some problems, too—and you can't change what you can't feel. But you'll at least have a fighting chance if you cut through the romantic anesthesia.
Be forewarned, though: if you fall for a psychologist who talks you into " a little study about the effect of love on pain," bring along some friends. The shocks might be more painful than you realize, and at least the witnesses can remind you you're being hurt.
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