This is your Brain on Heartbreak

We all know that when love is good, it’s really good. Research shows that romantic attachments, when they’re healthy and supportive, can be immensely beneficial for our health.

Married people tend to live longer than single people and seem to fare better when seriously sick. But as poets and pop singers have long told us, when love goes awry, it hurts like nothing else. After my marriage ended—not by my choice—I found some comfort in art, but what I really wanted was science. I wanted to know why we feel so operatically sad when a romantic attachment dissolves. What I discovered is that love changes us so deeply—at a physiological level—that when it’s lost, we hurt more than if we had never loved at all.

“One of the most painful experiences that a human being can suffer is to lose a life partner,” says Helen Fisher, the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray and a biological anthropologist who studies the neuro-chemistry of love as a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. Despite that, she told me, it’s been vastly under-examined as a topic of study. Many scientists, she believes, simply underestimate the power of heartbreak, but they also find the excitatory state of falling in love more alluring. Fisher herself has done plenty of that. But after years of tracking the brains of the suckers who fall in love, she thought it would be interesting to see what happened to them once they’ve tumbled out the other side. She herself has been there, and so have most people.

For a paper published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010, Fisher and her colleagues put 15 people who hadn’t gotten over their breakups in a brain scanner. Researchers took images of each subject’s brain as the person viewed a photo of their rejecter and as they viewed 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. It reminded me of a passage from Rachel Cusk’s divorce memoir, Aftermath: “Grief is not love but it is like love. This is romance’s estranged cousin, a cruel character, all sleeplessness and adrenaline unsweetened by hope.”

In the study, brain regions that are associated with cravings and emotional regulation lit up, including the ventral tegmental area (VTA) bilaterally, ventral striatum, and cingulate gyrus. Many of the activated regions are necessary for feeling romantic love—and, Fisher added, for fostering cocaine addiction.

If love is an addiction, it can be a constructive one, compelling us toward one another. But when love is not returned, the physical effects can be ugly. 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, said Fisher. The difference is that with heartbreak, the pain can last and last.

In Fisher’s study, all subjects said that they thought about their rejecting beloveds for more than 85 percent of their waking hours. They also reported “signs of lack of emotion control on a regular basis since the initial break up, in all cases occurring regularly for weeks or months,” the researchers wrote. When it comes to heartbreak, many of us become uncharacteristically tempestuous.

Sometimes we become suicidal. One paper found that among adolescents experiencing suicidal ideation in the U.S., breaking up is one of the largest risk factors for a first suicide attempt, and according to one study, among adults who died by suicide, intimate-partner problems are a factor 27 percent of the time, more than any other the study asked about, including poor physical health, financial trouble, and eviction. “I think nature has overdone it,” Fisher told me.

She explained there are two basic neurological stages of getting dumped: protest and resignation. During the protest stage, many people try to win their beloved back. This behavior, she said, seems to be based on a cocktail of extra dopamine and norepinephrine flooding your brain. You’re searching for what you’re missing, and you’re scared. I could relate: I felt like I’d been plugged into an amplifier in the months after my split. This was, Fisher told me, hypervigilance in response to one’s new threat-filled state. That helps explain the sleeplessness, weight loss, and general agitation that can occur among the newly dumped.

During the resignation stage, Fisher said, people largely give up the protests and the bargaining. This is when the dopamine drops off, and so does serotonin, a neurotransmitter often linked to feelings of well-being. “Yeah, I’m there,” I said, although I wasn’t completely convinced about the resignation. “You sound like you’re there,” she said. “Once you’re there, it’s lethargy and, of course, a lot of tears. Now some people will drink too much, drive too fast, or hole up and watch TV. Other people will talk their heads off about it. [None of those are] very good.”