The Neuroscience of Heartbreak

By: Ryan Bose-Roy

Meet Alex.


Alex is a typical high-school junior, who’s also been in a relationship for over two years. At first he was unsure about it, but being the responsible adolescent that he is, he’s found the time to balance his romantic endeavors with his rigorous coursework. Well done, Alex.

But then his boyfriend - let’s call him Adam - breaks up with him. There’s no particularly striking reason for the breakup, Adam just feels like the relationship isn’t going anywhere, and at this point the thrill of being romantic has worn off, replaced by the kafkaesque ordeals of his studies.


Poor Alex! One can only imagine the kind of struggle he’s going through!


Fortunately, that’s why we’re here.


In responding to an upsetting and stressful situation, Alex would first go into “fight-or-flight” mode. This response begins in the hypothalamus, located just below the center of the brain, which signals the adrenal glands to produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn raise blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. It is here that Alex would probably appear most visibly upset - I imagine him vehemently denouncing all humankind as he stares tearfully into that fateful text message.


Let’s fast forward two weeks.


Alex is walking through the hallway, when he stumbles upon Adam mid-semi proposal to another student.


#Ouch. Research suggests that the profound distress Alex is currently experiencing recruits the same neural mechanisms as injury response. In other words, the brain processes emotional pain in a similar way that it processes physical pain. Adam activates Alex’s somatosensory cortices, which are also responsible for the signalling and intensity and location of injury. Love hurts.


One of the ways scientists know that the pathways of physical and emotional pain are similar is by observing the effects of drugs used to treat physical pain on one’s emotional state. For instance, acetaminophen, or tylenol, has also been found to lessen the emotional pain of break ups. The same is also true of morphine and numerous other opioids. However, Alex is a responsible adolescent, and does not indulge in this kind of drug-seeking behavior - he’s better than that. This is also a good time to say that the purpose of this single paragraph is to describe past research, not to give advice.


Fast forward another week.


Getting over a breakup can be hard, but fMRI studies of the brain show that reactivating reward pathways can be helpful. Some studies suggest that hanging out with a close friend can help reduce cravings for an ex partner. Similarly, exercise has been shown to improve mood by increasing endorphins and dopamine levels in the brain. It is fortunate for Alex that he is a swimmer and trains in the weight room during Gym class every Friday.

It’s been a long three weeks for Alex, but we’re all rooting for him. In the end, he’ll be fine :)

The Scientific Teen

Since June 2018

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