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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Sex and love addicts often want to know: What is the difference between sexual desire and love, and how are they related? Happily, thanks to modern brain imaging studies, this question is easily answered.

Typically, these studies are conducted using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology, which allows researchers to measure brain activity in response to various stimuli. Essentially, when one portion of the brain is activated—by a thought, an emotion, a movement, or anything else—blood flow to and within that area increases, and fMRI scans clearly depict this. In this way, tracking what happens in the brain when an individual experiences things like sexual arousal and long-term love is a relatively straightforward task.

One rather extensive study combined and analyzed the results of 20 separate fMRI trials looking at brain reactivity in response to physical attraction, sexual arousal, and long-term love. After pooling this extensive data, scientists were able to “map” the ways in which both sexual desire and long-term love stimulate the brain. The two main findings were as follows:

  1. Sexual desire and long-term love both stimulate the striatum—an area of the brain that includes the nucleus accumbens (the rewards center). This means that both sexual attraction and lasting love create the experience of pleasure.
  2. Long-term love (but not sexual desire) also stimulates the insula, an area of the brain associated with motivation. In other words, the insula “gives value” to pleasurable and/or life-sustaining activities (to make sure we continue to engage in them). This means that lasting love has an inherent “value” that sexual attraction does not.

In short, the striatum (the home of the rewards center) is responsible for initial attraction and sexual desire, while the insula is responsible for transforming that desire into long-term love.

Interestingly, the striatum is the area of the brain most closely associated with the formation of addiction. In fact, addictive substances and activities all rather thoroughly stimulate this segment of the brain. As such, it is hardly surprising that some people (i.e., love addicts) might get hooked on the early, super-exciting stage of relationships. After all, this early stage of a relationship causes the release of dopamine, adrenaline, oxytocin, serotonin, and various other endorphins—the same basic neurobiological stimulation that we get with cocaine, heroin, sexual activity, gambling, and other addictive substances and behaviors.

Another interesting facet of the study’s findings is that the striatum—the portion of the brain most closely associated with addiction—must be stimulated if a person wishes to build and maintain long-term love. In fact, this neurobiological rush is what pushes couples toward the slow and steady development of mature intimacy and longer-term relationships. This means the addiction-like stage of a romantic relationship is a necessary step on the road to long-term love.

The main difference between love addicts and healthy people is that love addicts never make it past initial attraction; they never “assign value” to anything beyond the initial intensity they experience. Instead, they seek to continually stimulate their brain’s pleasure center with one new relationship after another, just as alcoholics stimulate their brains with one drink after another, and sex addicts repeatedly stimulate their brains with sexual fantasies, images, and encounters.

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