Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Jealousy is a powerful force


By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

Sexual jealousy is sometimes considered a petty emotion. But jealousy ? and the pain of thwarted love ? are powerful forces, experts say.
People may suffer tremendous anguish when they perceive they have been rejected, even if their relationship was entirely imaginary, says Gregory White, co-author of a medical book called Jealousy: Theory, Research and Clinical Strategies and a psychology professor at San Diego-based National University.

"Love is a drug," says psychiatrist and neuroscientist Daniel Amen. "Falling in love is like taking cocaine. It works in the same center of the brain."

Beyond ordinary jealousy

Police say astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was arrested Monday in Orlando, attacked a woman she considered a romantic rival.

Yet mental health experts say that the incident, as described by police, goes far beyond the limits of ordinary jealousy.

Though Amen says he has no personal knowledge of the case, the behavior that has been described in news stories sounds like that of someone who has "lost touch with reality."

Bizarre behavior could be caused by many things, such as mental illness, drugs, exposure to a toxic substance or a brain injury from an accident, says Amen, author of Sex on the Brain.

Romantic loss is one of the most common triggers for suicide, Amen says. White notes that 10% to 25% of murders are related to jealousy. And he says about half of the people in women's shelters were abused by jealous lovers. Crimes committed by men and women are about equally likely to be motivated by love.

White agrees that it's not possible to diagnose a patient without talking to the person. But he says that a number of psychological ailments can lead to irrationally jealous behavior.

Delusional patients who suffer from a form of psychosis may behave normally in most situations. But they imagine that they have a secret, special relationship with another person, such as a celebrity they don't even know, White says.

Patients who have severe depression also can become paranoid, perceiving threats that don't really exist, White says.

Some people suffer a profound romantic loss but never recover. Although others may eventually get over a broken heart, they experience the pain as a fresh, raw wound for years. They may act normally much of the time, but suddenly act out when their trauma is reopened by a painful event.

If someone "had an unhappy love relationship early in life, that wound can lie there festering, and it doesn't show itself in other kinds of relationships," White says.

Some patients get stuck in a destructive pattern that they find difficult to escape, Amen adds. They may become compulsive and have trouble controlling their actions.

Smart, but not about relationships

Experts say highly educated and successful people are not immune from romantic turmoil. Although intelligent people may be more able than most to delay gratification or control their impulses to achieve a goal, they aren't necessarily any more skillful in negotiating relationships, White says.

Amen says he's encouraged by research that suggests skilled doctors can help even those people who have dangerous obsessions, such as stalkers or sex offenders.

Amen uses sophisticated brain imaging to prescribe drugs such as anti-seizure medications and antidepressants that, in many cases, can calm down destructive chemical signals.

"If you put them on the right medication, you can better normalize it, so they don't act so badly," Amen says.

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