Wednesday, November 03, 2010

love is a painkiller

love is a painkiller.

really? you don't say? this is a surprise to people?

i don't think anyone who's ever been in love wouldn't find this a statement of the simply obvious (i've put the full text of the article below at the end of this post):
this appeared on CNN some time ago, but i've been letting it percolate in my mind, since i think i've had more than my fair share of experience on the matter (love, not painkillers, although the entire argument here is that they're both the same thing, but whatever).

anyone who is an athlete can probably relate a personal story about how much love can affect their own performance. at least, they can if they're being honest. an athlete's physical performance, particularly at the most extreme levels, is affected by the athlete's state of mind, not just in terms of self-confidence or commitment or ambition or focus but also in terms of calm and inspiration and positive attitude. and all of these factors can be very much affected by the various bio-chemical hormonal emotional responses to the condition of love.

which is why athletes experiencing romantic problems or break-ups sometimes have major deterioration in their performances, and in some cases go so far as to withdraw from competition. i remember a story of an Australian sprinter who quit his country's Olympic qualifiers citing a broken heart arising from his divorce. i can believe it. heartache just saps your energy and it crushes your motivation.

and it doesn't just have to be romantic love. i think it also applies to other forms of love, like the love of family or close friends. the status of those relationships can have a huge impact on your state of mind, and hence on the ability of that mind to muster physical ability.

this is why i think that it helps athletes to be in love. seriously. i really do. i mean good love--not the high-drama, high-chaos, high-anxiety kind of love that plays havoc with your mental state, but the peaceful, stable, happy kind of love that builds a positive peace of mind.

i think this latter kind of love imbues athletes with 1) the comfort of knowing they're supported (and hence are not alone); 2) the knowledge they're approved (and hence are validated as good, erasing any self-doubt); 3) the desire to inspire others (and hence want to do well by giving maximum effort); 4) the sense of joy (and hence a positivity that maintains motivation and belief in overcoming challenges). the end result is a person in a mental state that can withstand greater problems and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles--in short a person who radiates an aura of invincibility, who never falters, who never flinches, who never stops, who never tires, who seems to have superhuman strength and speed and coordination, who seems be utterly in: someone who feels no pain.

see what i mean?

yeah, love is like that.

tell me something i don't know.

Love may be as good as morphine

That rush of good feelings you have in the first few months of being in love don't just put you in a better mood; love may actually be a painkiller, researchers suggest in a new study in the journal PLoS ONE.

"Finding pleasure in activities, and with the one you’re with, can have multiple benefits, including reducing your pain," said senior author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the Division of Pain Management at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study looked at 15 undergraduates – both men and women – between ages 19 and 21, all of whom were in the "early phases of passionate love," having been in a relationship anywhere from a few months to a year. This is a small sample size, but not unusual for a study involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Participants were asked to bring in photos of their beloved and an acquaintance who was equally attractive. While viewing these photos, a computer-controlled stimulator made them feel pain in the palm of their hand that felt akin to burning oneself on a hot pan, but in a safe way and without causing any actual damage, Mackey said. They were also asked to answer distracting questions while the pain was applied. The fMRI scanner allowed researchers to examine what brain systems were involved during each condition.

The magnitude of pain relief when participants thought about their beloved was comparable to morphine and other clinical painkillers, Mackey said. However, he cautioned that this is not a study about chronic pain, merely pain applied for 30 seconds at a time in an artificial setting.

The results suggest that thinking about your beloved and having a non-love-related distraction lower the perception of pain, but the love effect involves entirely different brain systems, Mackey said. This speaks to the complexity of the human brain, he said.

Distraction involves high level cortical systems that are involved with conducting tasks, Mackey said. Love, on the other hand, involves systems dependent on dopamine, a brain chemical that causes us to feel good and crave things. The dopamine rush also happens upon eating a piece of chocolate, or, in more extreme forms, taking a hit of cocaine or heroin. Drugs that directly engage this brain chemical tend to be highly addictive, he said.

Other recent research also has described love as an addiction. A Journal of Neurophysiology study suggested that love involves the same area of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction; that's one example of recent findings on the science of love.

Mackey also suspects there is some effect of pain heightening in those who have recently experienced a breakup of some kind, having seen increases in pain among patients who went through divorces. But that was not part of this study.

Future research in this area might additionally explore whether the affection of people who have been in committed relationships for much longer, perhaps decades, can also relieve pain. Other areas to explore are the brain systems that are involved when it comes to homosexual love, the bond between mother and child, and platonic friendships, Mackey said.

"Trying to maintain that spark in one’s relationship and that passion, engaging those reward systems, may very well work the same way as being in that early phase of love," he said.

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