‘Sight inside Brain’ of Relationship Breakup! (Neuroscience of Broken Love)


love, rejection

....Loves me.. hates me...

An unexpected and unwanted breakup can cause considerable psychological distress. People report feeling as if they have been kicked in the stomach or blindsided and knocked down. Feelings of rejection and self-doubt are common, as is the feeling of being stuck and unable to let go, even when one wants to. Friends and family may push the person to get over it and move on, yet brain research suggests this can be very difficult to do, at least in the first few months.

Breakups and the Brain

The research on relationship breakups in unmarried people (generally college students) gives us some clues as to why these events are so subjectively painful. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show activity in several specific brain areas when rejected individuals see pictures of their ex-partners. Researcher Edward Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University and his colleagues put out fliers in Manhattan and ads on social networking sites to recruit participants who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the last six months. Using fMRI scans, the researchers assessed which brain areas lit up when participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners and simultaneously thought about experiences they had shared together. They compared this to when participants looked at pictures of a friend and were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures. These brain regions, including the insular and anterior cingulate cortex are known to be associated with pain experience.

fmri scan of brain of a rejected person

fMRI of the brain during a breakup

Our brains appear to process relationship breakups similarly to physical pain. There may be an evolutionary reason for this. The function of pain is to alert the person to physical danger or harm so she can take protective action. In the animal kingdom, one’s chances of avoiding predators are much higher as part of a group than alone, therefore social rejection may have been an actual threat to physical survival for our early ancestors. If this is the case, it might partially explain how difficult it is for many people to let go of the ex-partner and move on.

Obsessive Thoughts & “Cravings”

People who have recently been rejected by their partners often develop obsessive thinking. They may ruminate persistently about the ex-partner, how they are feeling, whether they are missing the relationship, and so on. These thoughts or feelings of loss may be triggered by places they used to go to together, people they used to hang out with, holidays, and everyday rituals that were shared. In this sense, processing a breakup is a bit like dealing with a trauma. The person cycles through periods of avoiding the emotional pain and being able to distract herself, and periods of being flooded by intense feelings and obsessive thoughts. There also seems to be a gender difference, in that men are more likely to distract and avoid feelings, and women more likely to obsess and ruminate. This may be because women have been socialized to take more responsibility for relationships, leading to more time spent thinking about what went wrong or what they could have done differently.

Recent research provides some suggestion that there may be physiological basis to these “cravings” for the ex-partner. Lucy Brown, Ph.D.,a Professor in the Department of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to recorded the brain activity of 15 college-age adults who had experienced a recent unwanted breakup and reported still feeling love for the ex-partner. Upon viewing photographs of their former partners, there was activity in the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex. These areas are associated with reward and motivation, specifically, the release ofdopamine that is also seen in drug addiction. Therefore, people may experience cravings for their ex-partner similarly to the way addicts crave a drug they are withdrawing from. This can lead to intense distress and physiological as well as psychological discomfort.

Hope and Resilience

One issue with these fMRI studies is that they tend to use a small number of people who respond to advertisements for people who haven’t gotten over their ex-partners. We don’t know if these people are representative of the average person who goes through a breakup, or whether they answer the ads because they are especially distressed. This needs to be determined in future research. Despite the short-term pain of a breakup, longer term findings indicate that most young people are resilient and recover. College students report feeling significantly less distressed about the breakup after about 10 weeks. Also, other studies have shown brain activity in the craving centers decreased as more time passed since the breakup.

Is there anything we can learn from these findings to help people deal with painful breakups. The analogy to addiction and pain may give people a framework for understanding the intensity of their feelings and can be a basis for developing self-compassion and realistic expectations. You might expect waves of strong emotion or “cravings” for the ex-partner in the initial period. Do not expect yourself to immediately be able to “just get over it and move on.” Give yourself time for your feelings in the first few weeks. Distraction and self-care activities may also help. Conditioning theory would suggest that places, people, or activities associated with the ex-partner may be particularly likely to trigger “cravings,” so you may want to avoid these for a while and try to develop some new routines. You could try Rick Hanson’s approach, focused on reprogramming the brain to think more positively. As with addictions, it helps to have a support group of people you can call on when you’re tempted to do something foolish. If your feelings are too intense to manage alone or if you find yourself coping in unhealthy ways, you should speak to a counselor in your area.

Advertisements

32 thoughts on “‘Sight inside Brain’ of Relationship Breakup! (Neuroscience of Broken Love)

  1. I intended to write you the bit of note to help thank you so much again for the great principles you have shown above. It’s certainly extremely open-handed of people like you to make easily all most of us could have supplied as an ebook in order to make some bucks on their own, certainly since you might well have tried it if you wanted. Those good ideas additionally acted to provide a easy way to understand that someone else have the same passion similar to mine to figure out a good deal more related to this issue. I think there are thousands of more fun opportunities in the future for those who browse through your site.

  2. We haven’t looked at around below for some time mainly because As i reflected it was obtaining monotonous, nevertheless the last hardly any article content are actually excellent well, i imagine Factors add everyone here we are at my personal day-to-day bloglist. Anyone ought to have it all my buddy.:)

  3. I simply could not give your website just before meaning that i in fact loved the standard facts particular person supply in your people? Will probably be backside incessantly in an effort to look into it cross-check brand-new sticks

  4. Seriously, terrific blog design! The amount of time or simply really been blogs for the purpose of? you help make running a start looking quick. All of the appear of the webpage amazing, neatly when the material!

  5. Oh now gosh! an amazing article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. thankx

  6. I found your weblog web site on google and verify just a few of your early posts. Continue to maintain up the very good operate. I just additional up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Seeking ahead to reading more from you afterward!…

  7. Very nice article and right to the point. I don’t know if this is really the best place to ask but do you folks have any ideea where to get some professional writers? Thx 🙂

  8. Hey would you mind letting me know which web host you’re utilizing? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you suggest a good web hosting provider at a fair price? Kudos, I appreciate it!

  9. I feel that is among the most vital info for me.
    And i am satisfied reading your article. But should commentary on some
    basic issues, The web site style is perfect, the articles is in reality nice :
    D. Just right task, cheers

  10. Excellent beat ! I wish to apprentice while you amend your site, how
    can i subscribe for a blog site? The account helped me
    a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear concept

  11. We’re a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with useful info to work on. You’ve performed an impressive activity and our whole neighborhood shall be grateful to
    you.

  12. I don’t know if it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing
    issues with your blog. It appears as though some of the written text within
    your content are running off the screen. Can someone
    else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them too?
    This may be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen previously. Appreciate it

  13. I’m more than happy to uncover this great site.
    I want to to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!!
    I definitely really liked every part of it and I have you book
    marked to check out new things on your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s