As most of us know all too well, when you’re reeling from the finale of a romantic relationship that you didn’t want to end, your emotional and bodily reactions are a tangle: You’re still in love and want to reconcile, but you’re also angry and confused; simultaneously, you’re jonesing for a “fix” of the person who has abruptly left your life, and you might go to dramatic, even embarrassing, lengths to get it, even though part of you knows better.
What does our brain look like when we’re in the throes of such agonizing heartbreak? This isn’t just an academic question. The answer can help us better understand not only what’s going on inside our lovelorn bodies, but why humans may have evolved to feel such visceral pain in the wake of a break-up. In that light, the neuroscience of heartbreak can offer some practical—and provocative—ideas for how we can recover from love gone wrong.
Addicted to love
The earliest pairings of brain research and love research, from around 2005, established the baseline that would inform research going forward: what a brain in love looks like. In a study led by psychologist Art Aron, neurologist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher, individuals who were deeply in love viewed images of their beloved and simultaneously had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine, which maps neural activity by measuring changes in blood flow in the brain. The fMRI’s vivid casts of yellows, greens, and blues—fireworks across gray matter—clearly showed that romantic love activates in the caudate nucleus, via a flood of dopamine.
The caudate nucleus is associated with what psychologists call “motivation and goal-oriented behavior,” or “the rewards system.” To many of these experts, the fact that love fires there suggests that love isn’t so much an emotion in its own right—although aspects of it are obviously highly emotional—as it is a “goal-oriented motivational state.” (If that term seems confusing, it might help to think about it in terms of facial expressions: Emotions are characterized by particular, passing facial expressions—a frown with anger, a smile with happiness, an open mouth with shock—while if you had to identify the face of someone “in love,” it would be harder to do.) So as far as brain wiring is concerned, romantic love is the motivation to obtain and retain the object of your affections.
But romance isn’t the only thing that stimulates increases in dopamine and its rocketlike path through your reward system. Nicotine and cocaine follow exactly the same pattern: Try it, dopamine is released, it feels good, and you want more—you are in a “goal-oriented motivational state.” Take this to its logical conclusion and, as far as brain wiring is concerned, when you’re in love, it’s not as if you’re an addict. You are an addict.
Just as love at its best is explained by fMRI scans, so, too, is love at its worst. In 2010 the team who first used fMRI scanning to connect love and the caudate nucleus set out to observe the brain when anger and hurt feelings enter the mix. They gathered a group of individuals who were in the first stages of a breakup, all of whom reported that they thought about their rejecter approximately 85 percent of their waking hours and yearned to reunite with them. Moreover, all of these lovelorn reported “signs of lack of emotion control on a regular basis since the initial breakup, occurring regularly for weeks or months. This included inappropriate phoning, writing or e-mailing, pleading for reconciliation, sobbing for hours, drinking too much and/or making dramatic entrances and exits into the rejecter’s home, place of work or social space to express anger, despair or passionate love.” In other words, each of these bereft souls had it bad.
Then, with appropriate controls, the researchers passed their subjects through fMRI machines, where they could look at photographs of their beloved (called the “rejecter stimulus”), and simultaneously prompted them to share their feelings and experience, which elicited statements such as “It hurt so much,” and “I hate what [they] did to me.”
A few particularly interesting patterns in brain activity emerged:
As far as the midbrain reward system is concerned, they were still “in love.” Just because the “reward” is delayed in coming (or, more to the point, not coming at all), that doesn’t mean the neurons that are expecting “reward” shut down. They keep going and going, waiting and waiting for a “fix.” Not surprisingly, among the experiment’s subjects, the caudate was still very much in love and reacted in an almost Pavlovian way to the image of the loved one. Even though cognitively they knew that their relationships were over, part of each participant’s brain was still in motivation mode.
Parts of the brain were trying to override others. The orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in learning from emotions and controlling behavior, activated. As we all know, when you’re in the throes of heartbreak, you want to do things you’ll probably regret later, but at the same time another part of you is trying to keep a lid on it.
They were still addicted. As they viewed images of their rejecters, regions of the brain were activated that typically fire in individuals craving and addicted to drugs. Again, no different from someone addicted to—and attempting a withdrawal from—nicotine or cocaine.
While these conclusions explain in broad strokes what happens in our brains when we’re dumped, one scientist I interviewed describes what happens in our breakup brains in a slightly different way. “In the case of a lost love,” he told me, “if the relationship went on for a long time, the grieving person has thousands of neural circuits devoted to the lost person, and each of these has to be brought up and reconstructed to take into account the person’s absence.”
Which brings us, of course, to the pain.
When you’re deep in the mire of heartbreak, chances are that you feel pain somewhere in your body—probably in your chest or stomach. Some people describe it as a dull ache, others as piercing, while still others experience it as a crushing sensation. The pain can last for a few seconds and then subside, or it can be chronic, hanging over your days and depleting you like just like the pain, say, of a back injury or a migraine.
But how can we reconcile the sensation of our hearts breaking—when in fact they don’t, at least not literally—with biophysical reality? What actually happens in our bodies to create that sensation? The short answer is that no one knows. The long answer is that the pain might be caused by the simultaneous hormonal triggering of the sympathetic activation system (most commonly referred to as fight-or-flight stress that ramps up heart and lung action) and the parasympathetic activation system (known as the rest-and-digest response, which slows the heart down and is tied to the social-engagement system). In effect, then, it could be as if the heart’s accelerator and brakes are pushed simultaneously, and those conflicting actions create the sensation of heartbreak.
While no one has yet studied what exactly goes on in the upper-body cavity during the moments of heartbreak that might account for the physical pain, the results of the aforementioned fMRI study of heartbroken individuals indicate that when the subjects looked at and discussed their rejecter, they trembled, cried, sighed, and got angry, and in their brains these emotions triggered activity in the same area associated with physical pain. Another study that explored the emotional-physical pain connection compared fMRI results on subjects who touched a hot probe with those who looked at a photo of an ex-partner and mentally relived that particular experience of rejection. The results confirmed that social rejection and physical pain are rooted in exactly the same regions of the brain. So when you say you’re “hurt” as a result of being rejected by someone close to you, you’re not just leaning on a metaphor. As far as your brain is concerned, the pain you feel is no different from a stab wound.
This neatly parallels the discoveries that love can be addictive on a par with cocaine and nicotine. Much as we think of “heartbreak” as a verbal expression of our pain or say we “can’t quit” someone, these are not actually artificial constructs—they are rooted in physical realities. How wonderful that science, and specifically images of our brains, should reveal that metaphors aren’t poetic flights of fancy.
But it’s important to note that heartbreak falls under the rubric of what psychologists who specialize in pain call “social pain”—the activation of pain in response to the loss of or threats to social connection. From an evolutionary perspective, the “social pain” of separation likely served a purpose back on the savannas that were the hunting and gathering grounds of our ancestors. There, safety relied on numbers; exclusion of any kind, including separation from a group or one’s mate, signaled death, just as physical pain could signal a life-threatening injury. Psychologists reason that the neural circuitries of physical pain and emotional pain evolved to share the same pathways to alert protohumans to danger; physical and emotional pain, when saber-toothed tigers lurked in the brush, were cues to pay close attention or risk death.
On the surface, that functionality wouldn’t seem terribly relevant now—after all, few of us risk attack by a wild animal charging at us from behind the lilacs at any given moment, and living alone doesn’t mean a slow, lonely death. But still, the pain is there to teach us something. It focuses our attention on significant social events and forces us to learn, correct, avoid, and move on.
When you look at social pain from this perspective, you have to acknowledge that in our society we’re often encouraged to hide it. We bottle it up. While of course it’s possible to be private about one’s pain and still deal with it, and it may not be so healthy to share your sob story with everyone you meet on the street, if you’re totally ignoring it and the survival theory holds true, then you’re putting yourself at risk because you’re not alerting others to a potential crisis.
The heartbreak pill?
Several studies, also using the hot probe + image + fMRI combo, have shown that looking at an image of a loved one actually reduces the experience of physical pain, in much the same way that, say, holding a loved one’s hand during a frightening or painful procedure does, or kissing a child’s boo-boo makes the tears go away. Science shows that love is effectively a painkiller, because it activates the same sections of brain stimulated by morphine and cocaine; moreover, the effects are actually quite strong.
On one level this suggests a wonderfully simple and elegant solution, albeit a New Agey one, to physical or emotional pain: All you need is love. And it bolsters the notion, faulty though it may be for some of us, that if you’re suffering from a broken heart, moving on fast can bring relief.
There’s a point, however, where this trend in fMRI research starts to enter a prickly realm: Because physical pain and emotional pain—like heartbreak—travel along the same pathways in the brain, as covered earlier, this means that theoretically they can be medically treated in the same way. In fact, researchers recently showed that acetaminophen—yep, regular old Tylenol—reduces the experience of social pain. “We have shown for the first time that acetaminophen, an over-the-counter medication commonly used to reduce physical pain, also reduces the pain of social rejection, at both neural and behavioral levels,” they write in their paper in the journal Psychological Science.
But some experts argue that the moment you put a toe on the slippery slope of popping pills to make you feel better emotionally, you have to wonder if doing so circumvents nature’s plan. You’re supposed to feel bad, to sit with it, to review what went wrong, even to the point of obsession, so that you learn your lesson and don’t make the same mistake again.
While they might not admit it, for biologists and psychologists, understanding love on a chemical level is tantamount to finding the holy grail. After all, the more we understand about love in terms of science . . . well then, the closer we are to understanding what makes humans human, an advance that might be on a par with physicists cracking the mystery of the space-time continuum.
Ultimately, all this progress points to one thing: treatment, with both painkillers and antiaddiction drugs. Perhaps recovering from heartbreak could be as simple as wearing a patch (Lovaderm!) or chewing a special gum (Lovorette!) or popping a pill (Alove!) that just makes the pain go away.
If you could take a pill that assured that you could fall in love, fall out of love, or stay in love on command, would you take it?