A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reveals that true love acts on areas of the brain responsible for pain and safety and works to minimize pain levels. The research, led by Naomi Eisenberger from the University of California, looked at 17 women who were currently in long-term relationships. The researchers used MRIs to monitor the women’s brains while administering stinging shocks to their body. The women were asked to look at pictures while receiving the shocks which varied from a picture of their partner, strangers, or stationary objects. The women were then given a 20-point scale to use to rate their pain after each shock.
The pain scores were lower for the women when they were looking at a picture of their partner. Looking then at the MRI scans matching those shocks, the researchers found activity in the brain region associated with pain, but they also discovered activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which is associated with a feeling of safety. Looking further at the women and the relationships they were in, they found that the longer the women had been in the relationship and the more overall support they received from their partner, the greater the level of activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPFC, was demonstrated. The VMPFC is capable of inhibiting other pathways in the brain responsible for fear and anxiety, so this level of safety the women feel in their relationship helps to activate this and reduce pain. Researchers also discovered that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, an area responsible for stress response, had less activity when the women were gazing at the photos of their loved one.