I’m excited to write to you from our new guest house at Scientopia!! Do you like it?!?!? 'Cause we sure are getting comfy 😉
For the first post I decided to cover a topic that remains a mystery not only to me and larger scientific community but also (let's be honest here) the greater HUMAN species....
Or really in my case I wanna know what happens in your brain after you get your heartbroken.
You know that feeling, when that one person you thought was your soulmate decides he/she wants to end things. I won't go into details about your chest wanting to explode, or the fact you seem to be obsessively thinking about them every minute of everyday..
I'll simply refer you to any Nicholas Sparks movie.
Hey, you had your lovey dovey time over Valentines day.
But before we jump right into the “removal” of love, let just get a refresher on love in the brain.
Clicky on this video for a 3 min breakdown.
As you can imagine, love is a complicated emotion, it has so so so many layers. While the above video tries to summarize it into compact digestible bits, it really remains one of those topics that scientists struggle to put into nice boxes.
So what dose neuroscience make of this entire heatbreak business?
First of all its "scientifically" called romantic/social Rejection (I really should have paid more attention in my psych classes, would’ve taken me less time to research this stuff), but Imma call it heartbreak. More dramatic.
As you can imagine studying love is messy, by default studying rejection would also be as messy if not more so.
Studies have just recently begun to delve into the neuroscience associated with heartbreak. The studies I will be referring too (links down below,they are both open access!!) utilized fMRI imaging techniques along with various psych tests, such as comparing neural activation between a picture of the previous lover and a neutral/friend photograph.
When looking at reward, addiction or romantic love, a number of studies have shown that there is a similar pattern of activation in the subcortical areas, which include the ventral tegmental area (aka VTA, personally one of my favorites), the nucleus accumbens core, ventral globus pallidus and the ventral putamen.
The study by Fisher et al. further explored that activation of the VTA with regards to heartbreak; their subjects showed greater activation in that area when viewing an image of the pervious lover then when viewing a neutral faces. They concluded that regardless of the fact that these individuals were no longer in the relationship, the participants VTA and angular gyrus remains very much activated.
They also found that their participants had a more pronounced activiation in the ventral striatum, nucleus accumbens core and the ventral putamen...
Notice something guys?!?!?
Same areas that are involved in falling in love are also still involved in having your heartbroken...
Fisher et al. also found that their participants had significant activation of orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, the forbrain regions of the reward system. This finding right here is what I personally find totally cool. You see, the activation of the forbrain suggests that falling in/out of love involves learning. The authors actually hypothesized that this learning process may have used the experience-reward systems (the interplay between the VTA, forebrain & nucleus accumbens). This in turn may shed light as to how the reward system may have been employed & when it is activated in terms of the perceived relationship status.
You may be wondering "Okey, we get that we are addicted.. but why does heartbreak physically hurt?"
Well lovers, according to a study by Kross et al. heartbreak hurts because, you guessed it, it actually activates the same "pain area" in the brain as physical pain. They found that both physical pain and social rejection have overlapping representation in the somatosensory system (the conglomerate of sensory information, from touch to pain to spatial positioning of the body).
Questions/caveats of these types of studies are (in my opinion) the ages of the participants, the length/commitment of the relationship, the type of relationship & using psych tasks to invoke memories of the feelings. Feelings are messy.
The good news is that more extensive research is being done in this area. So go ahead, fall in love, fall out of love, donate your time to science and help us figure this out 😉
Till next time.
For your pleasure;
David Disalvo's piece for Forbes