The Secret to Love (and Lust)

Mj 618_348_addicted to love
Patrick Zachmann / Magnum

Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love. Or, if you’re not hooked now, you likely have been before or will be someday. Scientists have known for a while that love is housed in the brain, not the heart, but researchers at Concordia University in Montreal just pinpointed exactly which parts of the brain love activates – and found that they’re some of the same spots triggered by booze, drugs, gambling, and other habit-forming hijinks.

But this isn’t a bad thing, insists Jim Pfaus, lead study author and professor of psychology at Concordia. “We make addiction a dirty word because it’s associated with drugs, but in fact it’s a natural process that triggers a wanting or craving for something you desire.”

Pfaus and company analyzed the results of 20 different studies that monitored people’s brain activity while they gazed at photos of significant others, peeped at porn, and engaged in other love-or-lust-sparking tasks, which allowed the researchers to construct a visual map of love, lust, and addiction in the brain. “We found that love activates the dorsal striatum, a region previously shown to translate motivation into action, especially in the formation of behaviors aimed at getting reward, and in particular, drug reward,” Pfaus explains.

This makes sense, he says, because we become creatures of habit when in love. “We hold hands and gaze at each other in particular ways that are ‘special’ and thus define the relationship, and these behaviors become habits that deliver a reward: love,” Pfaus explains. The same is true for substance addiction. “Take the ritualistic way a guy fondles a cigarette in his fingers or a cocaine addict cuts a rock into lines to snort,” he says. “Simply seeing these actions will activate the dorsal part of an addict’s striatum. Seeing or thinking about your romantic partner activates the same region.”

Interestingly, lust fits into the whole picture a little differently. Pfaus’ team found that straight-up sexual desire with no love attached triggers only the ventral striatum, not the dorsal region. So watching a stranger’s striptease or checking out an attractive woman across the bar activates a different part of the brain than does fantasizing about your girlfriend or, for an alcoholic, craving a drink.

However, when lust actually does evolve into love, the feeling begins recruiting more and more of the dorsal striatum, Pfaus says. Then as the relationship takes off, “both parts, dorsal and ventral, will continue to be activated, so long as a couple continues to be hot for each other,” he explains.

Basically, if you can keep both brain parts busy by loving and desiring your partner, you’ve hit the jackpot of any romantic relationship. But here’s the hurdle: Routines – even once-steamy sexual grooves – can become tired, monotonous, and less satisfying. “One of the problems with habit is it automates behavior, to the point of doing the least amount of work necessary to get a reward,” Pfaus says. “That’s why once sex becomes habitual, arousal and desire often fly out the window.”

Therefore, it’s key to keep both brain parts happy to keep a relationship complete. “Vacation sex, role playing – whatever your pleasure – all have the ability to keep it fiery, even if you’ve been living with your partner for 20 years,” he says.

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