by Melissa Joy Jonsson, Contributor Waking Times
Addictions as Distractions
“Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah / It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough / You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love.” — Robert Palmer
Love. We are all addicted to love indeed. Not just the idea, not just the feeling, but the neurochemistry of love. The experience of love favorably changes our neurophysiology in both mind and body. When we experience love, our body produces its own natural opiates, endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters. Among these chemicals is oxytocin, often called our “love hormone” because of its crucial role in mother–child relationships, social bonding, and intimacy (oxytocin levels soar during sex).
Interestingly, oxytocin has also been shown to mitigate fear. When oxytocin is administered to people with certain anxiety disorders, activity declines in the amygdala—the primary fear center in the brain. As a result, people feel less fearful. Thus exogenous oxytocin, along with other fear-reducing compounds in clinical development, may eventually be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other fear-related conditions.
Addicted to Love
We are hard-wired for love. Our bodies crave love as much as oxygen and water. Many people do not realize that the neurochemistry produced through love is the same neurochemistry produced by the brain while engaging in addictive behaviors. Thus addiction may breed easily in a person starving for love. Love and addiction have the same initial chemical impact on the body–mind connection.
According to studies of the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the sensation of love is processed in three areas of the brain.
Area 1: Ventral Tegmental Area (Dopamine). The first area is the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a clump of tissue in the brain’s lower regions that is the body’s central refinery for dopamine. Dopamine performs many functions but primarily regulates reward. Winning the lottery can produce a thrilling rush of dopamine. Remarkably, the VTA also becomes active when one feels the rush of cocaine.
Area Two: Nucleus Accumbens (Oxytocin). Thrill signals that start in the lower brain are then processed in the nucleus accumbens via dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. New mothers are flooded with oxytocin during labor and nursing, supporting a strong connection to their babies.
According to neuroscientists,
this association between rewarding experiences and dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens initially caused many neuroscientists to believe the main role of the nucleus accumbens was in mediating reward. Thus, it is often implicated in addiction and the processes that lead to addiction.
However, since the initial links were made between the nucleus accumbens and reward, it has been discovered that dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens rise in response to both rewarding and aversive stimuli [emphasis added]. This finding led to a re-evaluation of the functions of the nucleus accumbens, and indeed of the functions of dopamine as a neurotransmitter. The most widely accepted perspective now is that dopamine levels don’t rise only during rewarding experiences but instead rise anytime we experience something that can be deemed either positive or negative.1
Area 3: The Caudate Nuclei (Dopamine). The last major area for love signals in the brain are the caudate nuclei, a pair of structures on either side of the head, each about the size of a shrimp. It’s here that patterns and mundane habits, such as knowing how to drive a car or cook spaghetti, are stored.2
CAU: Cause to Pause
The caudate nucleus integrates complex emotions and thoughts about love. The caudate nuclei (CAU) are all about making choices, but they are also connected to addictions because of their role in feeling pleasure, relief, and comfort. In many cases, the reason why a person may choose addiction can be buried in the unconscious, but the caudate nuclei of the brain may hold keys to the pattern. Interestingly, studies have shown that people who have damage to the CAU show repetitive and compulsive behavior. They will keep doing a thing over and over again, even though it’s unnecessary and doesn’t do them any good.3…