What Makes Love So Addictive? What Brain Studies Reveal

Overcoming the pain of rejection

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Falling in love can feel intoxicating and even addictive. Professor Vishton reveals how love does indeed have addictive qualities—making the experience of rejection very painful. Thankfully, you can channel these emotions in a healthy way.

Happy couple forming heart with their hands together
Brain imaging work done through fMRI scans of the area of the brain that produces the desire for food, water, etc. shows that it also functions to produce feelings of desire involved in romantic attraction. Photo By G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock

The Brain in Love

As is the case with addictive substances such as alcohol, love presents powerful physiological effects. Biological anthropologist and Rutgers Professor Helen Fisher and her colleagues have run several studies in which they observed people during an fMRI scan of the brain and noted brain activity in relation to the study participants experiencing sensations of love.

This research team found activation in a variety of regions but most notably in the ventral tegmental area, a small region located near the bottom of the brain. It shares many connections with the nucleus accumbens, which is one of the areas associated with desire in general—desire for food and water, as well as a loved one. 

Indeed, many people consider the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens to be part of the same overall neural circuit. When you introduce dopamine into the cells in the nucleus accumbens region, the experience is a rush of pleasure.

If you are hungry and you take a bite of a food you like, this nucleus accumbens area is activated. Having a goal of completing a project and making progress on the goal also activates this area. 

If you take a dose of cocaine, you get an enormous amount of activation at the nucleus accumbens.

Love and Other Addictive Substances

Cocaine is clearly something to which people become addicted. You might feel as if some people you’ve known—perhaps including yourself—have developed an addiction to love or at least to the rush that they feel with a new love. This brain imaging work suggests that a love addiction is certainly a possibility—many of the same brain circuits are involved.

A lot of our moment-to-moment behaviors are driven by these subcortical brain systems. Interestingly, while the system is activated by cocaine or other drive-based activities, the system also becomes very active even before the need is met. 

That is, this isn’t so much a pleasure system of the brain. It’s more of a wanting system of the brain. When someone is craving a hit of a drug or craving a bite of food, there’s a lot of activity in this reward system.

That happens with love as well. Some studies have also been conducted with people who have recently been dumped by someone they love. This experience of being rejected is one of the worst things in most people’s lives. 

Why Rejection Hurts

If you love someone and they don’t love you back, it would be completely reasonable to love them less because of it. Unfortunately, that’s not how most people experience it. When someone doesn’t love you back, it can often lead to the sense that you want them more than you did before.

That pattern matches the results of these fMRI studies as well. The recently dumped participants, upon seeing and thinking about that person who dumped them, show levels of activity that are as great—sometimes even greater—than those of people who are in a reciprocal loving relationship with someone.

This is also why it’s understandable that many people respond to being dumped by eating a lot of ice cream, drinking more alcohol than usual, indulging in too much media (like watching television or scrolling on social media for hours), shopping compulsively, or other forms of binge behavior. 

Some people will immediately jump back into the dating world in hopes of finding someone else to fill this void. The experience of being jilted ramps up the activity of a system that can be quelled by replacements—forms of subcortical activation. 

You can outsmart this behavioral tendency by engaging in more healthful activities such as work, exercise, and other goal-directed behaviors that will activate these same brain circuits. When you set a goal and achieve it, the same type of dopamine release is triggered.

Thus, not only are you overcoming the pain of rejection or disrupting a pattern of falling into unhealthy relationships, but you are also accomplishing your goals in the process.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.