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Love reduces pain? Anyone over 30 knows otherwise.

October 20th, 2010 · 2 Comments

This is why I don’t trust stories about new findings in sex or relationships, no matter how fun the conclusion might be. Sometimes even reading the abstract of the actual study, and preferably the whole study paper, does not ease my suspicions. Not that my intuition or feelings constitute evidence against the accuracy of a study. But if it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right.

pain scale

New Scientist posted a blurb last Friday, called Being in love eases the pain. It reports on Stanford researchers who did some real science-y kind of stuff, like brain scans. The goal was to find out whether being in love reduces our experience of physical pain, and if so, how effective is it compared to distraction-based stimulation, like Words with Friends on an iThingie.

According to New Scientist, the study found that distraction eased pain through the cortex, while love eased pain through the same “reward center” affected by chocolate and cocaine.

And yet, the subjects hardly represent real-life love.

Mackey recruited 15 undergraduates, each of whom described themselves as ‘intensely in love’.

Undergraduates? Undergraduates are almost always young adults, aged 18-23, taking their first steps toward mature sexuality. No longer teenagers sneaking around under the law, they are bona fide adults, away from their parents and surrounded by interesting peers for the first time. They are experiencing love not quite as intensely as one does at 16, but unencumbered by the slog of children, years of struggle or disappointment or compromise in a job or career, yard work, and grown-up bills. Or the changing role of sex and passion as a relationship evolves over decades, not just semesters.

And these particular undergraduates likely come from financially secure families who supported their dedication to good grades and high test scores. Or they have the obsessiveness required to get into Stanford on good grades and high test scores despite poverty and lack of support, with huge student loans, scholarships, part-time jobs, and sacrifice.

I don’t dismiss their feelings or claim that it’s “not love.” But I do suspect that a wider sample of ages, family backgrounds, life experience, and length of relationship would have a significant impact on the findings.

Click here for the abstract of the study at PLoS ONE.

Tags: science and research

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wendy // Oct 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    and really how much do these “intensely in love” young adults about pain? would like to see a greater range of people and see if it still holds up

  • 2 JockM // Oct 20, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I think they are talking about limerence, that intense stage of obsession and longing that marks the beginning of love; when love makes you dopy and mildly insane.

    That like any form of distraction will decrease how pain is perceived. I have a condition that leaves me in cronic pain (unmedicated I would be a 8-9 all the time on the pain scale pictured above). One of the ways I control my pain (aside from the morphine ;) is a TENS unit. A device that provides electric shocks (from mild to intense) to my most painful parts.

    When you get past the hand waving about “disrupting the pain cycle” you find out it works by distracting you. Study after study shows that playing video games, watching porn (mmm), having sex, telling stories, etc etc serve to cut down on perceived levels of pain.

    Why? Because all of them are forms of distraction. So the idea of that the crazy, wonderful, head-over-heals experience of the beginning of falling in love would serve as a mild palliative to pain should not shock anyone.

    And it is hard to see how I can apply it to my everyday life. I don’t think my wife will be thrilled with me falling in love with a succession of other women (since limerence can only last so long).

    In fact I don’t think she would leave a body for the authorities to find ;)