Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain management at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology who has studied love at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, met several years ago at a neuroscience conference.
"Art was talking about love," Mackey says in a statement. "I was talking about pain. He was talking about the brain systems involved with love. I was talking about the brain systems involved with pain. We realized there was this tremendous overlapping system."
Researchers recruited 15 undergraduates -- eight women and seven men -- who were in the first nine months of a romantic relationship, who were feeling euphoric, energetic, obsessively thinking about their beloved and craving their presence.
The researchers asked each to bring a picture of their beloved and a photo of an equally attractive acquaintance.
The pictures were flashed before the subjects while their hands were subjected to mild pain and their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The study subjects were also tested for levels of pain relief while being distracted with word-association tasks.
The study, published in PLoS ONE, showed both love (looking at the picture of their beloved) and distraction (word games) equally reduce pain, but at much higher levels than focusing on the attractive acquaintance. But both methods of pain reduction used very different brain pathways.