Love and Pain and Your Brain

Animation of an MRI brain scan, starting at th...

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I’ve never broken a bone, had appendicitis, been in a car accident (I just knocked on wood) but I have experienced child-birth – drug free. That is the most intense pain I have ever felt, and even though I knew it was productive pain, and it would eventually be over, I screamed and swore and sweated and clenched and breathed through it all… and the one thing that helped me the most to get through each of those contractions was my partner-in-crime. He’d rub my back, squeeze my hips, hold my hand, look at me lovingly (even when I became a total banshee) and it didn’t hurt as much.

In February there was a little blip in Real Simple that told of a study done at Standford University and The State University of New York at Stony Brook that tested how much moderate pain college students felt while looking at their significant others. It was 45% less! Now this study was only done on 15 students (they scanned their brains while placing a hot probe in the student’s hand while showing them a picture of their love), and they were all in new relationships (you know, that dopey I want to be with my parter ALL the time phase), but it explained how love can give your brain a hit of dopamine – that same chemical that gives you that feel good feeling when you eat a big yummy brownie.  The idea is that giddy feeling is more than just emotional – it’s chemical.

My little girly girl is  in Kindergarten and already  knows the feeling of rejection. If you get a bunch of kids together, there will always be days of drama – and for her it was the loss of a friend (even if it’s just for a day). A few weeks ago she came home in tears because a little girl she sits with every day said she was “going to tell”. “Tell what?” I asked. “I dont’ know… I didn’t do anything,” Little Miss wailed and big tears and thrashing of arms commenced. She was definitely distressed.

There was another study done of 40 volunteers (how many of you were voluntold to participate in a study when you were in college to get credit in Psychology 105?) done by professors at the University of Michigan and Columbia that wanted to see if rejection actually made your brain feel pain. The volunteers had all been involved in un-wanted breakups in the last 6 months and MRI’s were used to check out their brains in 4 situations – looking at a photo of their ex., looking at a photo of a friend, having a device on their arm that produced a nice warmth, and then having that same device be warm enough to feel pain. What was discovered was that there were overlapping parts of the brain when the subjects were physically hurt or looked at the photo of their ex. The brain felt “pain” reguardless of whether it was physical or emotional.

Love can can make you feel great and love can really hurt. Every little thing we do and think and feel is controlled by our brains and I always find it fascinating when smarty pants scientists can figure out how that big gelatinous mass in our heads does something pretty cool.

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