About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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February 7, 2005

Is Lovesickness a Psychiatric Disorder?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

The Independent reports today on the growing belief that lovesickness should be categorized as a psychiatric illness:

"Falling in love used to be fun. Now doctors are warning that the throes of passion should be seen as a potentially fatal medical disorder. Psychologists say that "lovesickness" is a genuine disease that needs more awareness and diagnosis....Symptoms can include mania, such as an elevated mood and inflated self-esteem, or depression, revealing itself as tearfulness and insomnia...Aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder can also be found in those experiencing lovesickness, such as preoccupation and obsessively checking for text messages and e-mails...Professor Alex Gardner, a clinical psychologist in Glasgow and a member of the British Psychological Society, said doctors needed to be more aware of lovesickness as a possible diagnosis in their patients. "People can die from a broken heart," he said. "Lovesickness is probably extremely common."

While I have no doubt that lovesickness is common, I am increasingly concerned about the continuing trend of defining mental health problems with terms that do not correlate to the underlying neurobiology of the illness. Broad, top down descriptions of psychiatric conditions like this that are defined primarily via evaluation of externally observed symptoms confuse rather that improve accurate diagnosis and treatment.

I would like to see a neuroimaging study performed on a wide selection of those suffering from lovesickness to see if there is a common neurobiological explanation for this illness. My bet is that there would be little correlation among participants as the definition is too all encompassing.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Emoticeuticals


1. Alex on February 7, 2005 8:43 PM writes...

While generally agreed that neuroimagining should be conducted. It seems to me that fMRI, PET, and EEG are little more than modern phrenology, that hardly allow you to appreciate the underlying complexity. Even more importantly, would we treat Thomas Hardy for "love-sickness", a lot of these terrible moody disorders are the source of the best literature this world has to offer.

It's a fine we tread.

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2. MFraternity on February 8, 2005 3:24 PM writes...

I do think more accurate diagnosis of mental disorders such as lovesickness (under certain circumstances) and attention deficit disorder (where I think different people show different patterns of symptoms) will help in the development of better treatments.

However, I'm a little worried that more precise diagnostic tools would be used to deny treatment to people who exhibit some of the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder, but don't show the characteristic diagnostic indicators. To my mind, people should be able to receive treatment for whatever symptoms they are showing (regardless of whether or not their symptoms can be accurately characterized as belonging to a certain disorder)--assuming an effective treatment exists. Such access will be important for neuroenablement.

Incidentally, Randall Parker briefly discusses the finding that antidepressants such as SSRIs may reduce one's ability to fall in love. The blog entry's address is:

By the way, thanks for running such an interesting blog, Dr. Lynch. Keep up the good work.


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3. John Marchica on February 8, 2005 7:22 PM writes...

Helen Fisher explores this topic at length in Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. She performs detailed, controlled research on subjects wildly in love or recently jilted. The net: such feelings and emotions are measurable, but hardly characterized as mental illness.

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4. Jody on February 9, 2005 3:53 PM writes...

Amen Zack!

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5. Dr. kathleen kimball on February 9, 2005 3:55 PM writes...

we know the brain images of two people looking at the same picture are
NOT the same (e.g., an expert art historian and person without visual
literacy training). does the writer below 'see neuroimaging' as final
arbiter of embodied human experience worthy of study? given the pan
human nature of amore, albeit in varying degrees, e.g., initial stages
of falling in love, extreme 'lovesickness' as disorder,
recovering/emerging/fading from the condition, etc.) isn't this 'state
of consciousness' (amore) worthy of brain research? perhaps the rising
field of art based research is a place for such aesthetically oriented

thanks for your routinely interesting emails.

dr. kathleen kimball, president

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6. Juliette on February 11, 2005 5:06 PM writes...

I agree with the author. Love is sickness. when people really fall in love they forget everything. Their thoughts are only about the object of theirs passion and love.

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7. p on February 12, 2005 10:15 PM writes...

Enough ... We cannot define illness without a definition of wellness ... I know of no definition of wellness that has been accepted ... I am certain about a couple of things ... the ideal here is an abstraction ... humans as well as other living systems are either in the state of becoming or decaying ... transition states do not have well behaved properties ... Wellness is thus a lost cause ... On the scanning front ... we are truly hopeless ... scans will tell us nothing we already don't know ... they are merely another representatioanl form of a state ... the ability to define a state across a population will suffer the same statistcial and theoretcial all hard sciences suffer ...

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