This Is Your Brain on Heartbreak


Why does getting dumped hurt physically? Meghan Laslocky explains where that feeling comes from, and what it's good for.

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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 him or her. 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 he/she 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.

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