everyday sciencepopular science

hi, this is your brain on heartbreak

I often say that my toxic trait is trying to explain every little bit of human behavior with science. And that’s exactly what I tried to do recently — I needed to know the neuroscience of falling out of love, hormonal understanding of heartache, and everything about that sad-anger feeling most people have when a romantic attachment dissolves.

What scientists discovered is that love changes us so deeply — at a physiological level — that when it’s lost, you hurt more than if youo had never loved at all.

Despite that, neurochemistry or neurobiology of heartbreak has been vastly under-researched as a topic of study mostly because, until recently, many scientists underestimated the power of heartbreak.

For a paper published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleagues put 15 people who hadn’t gotten over their breakups in a brain scanner.

They did it while each of participants viewed a photo of their rejecter vs. a photo of a neutral, familiar person.

While viewing rejecters, their brains showed activation in some of the same regions as those still happily in love.

Brain regions that are associated with cravings and emotional regulation lit up, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) bilaterally, ventral striatum, and cingulate gyrus.

Most of these activated regions are necessary for feeling romantic love — and, authors added, for fostering cocaine addiction.

The brain’s reward systems (hello dopamine you maniac) are still expecting their romantic fix, but they’re not getting the responses they expect. And like someone in the depths of a drug addiction, they turn up the volume in an effort to get you to respond.

This biological function makes falling out of love about as hard as trying not to feel thirsty — not really a walk in the park.

In addition to finding activity in parts of the brain linked to craving and addiction, Fisher’s team also saw activation in parts of the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate that are linked to physical pain.

These regions also light up when you have a toothache. So heartbreak really does hurt and can last and last.

This triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, leading to all kinds of physical symptoms, such as nausea, difficulty breathing, and also a weakening of the heart muscle that doctors call Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken heart syndrome).

Fisher calls romantic love and attachments a basic human survival mechanism.

A breakup jeopardizes our basic need to send our DNA to future generations, and that is our survival instinct.

On the plus side, scientists have also found that your brain is hard-wired to move on.

“Our review of the literature suggests we have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives,” criminologist Brian Boutwell from Saint Louis University says.

“It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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