Do you remember the sting of your first break-up? Perhaps right now you are trying to get over someone who no longer wants to be with you. Talking for hours to friends about your ex? Obsessively checking Facebook for updates? Praying for the phone to ring?

Many people vividly recall the pain of a break-up. The deep thoughts of despair, of longing, of thinking you will never find another person to love. Sometimes it can feel like rehab is needed to overcome the craving for an ex. New research into the brain offers evidence that these feelings and emotions are a biological response to heartbreak, similar to a response one experiences when suffering a cocaine addiction.

Dr. Helen Fisher, an evolutionary biologist, studied the brain of 15 men and women who reported they were still "intensely in love" but had been rejected by a romantic partner. Using functional MRIs, each subject's brain was scanned while alternately viewing photographs of their former love as well as photographs of a neutral person. In between viewing the photos they were asked to complete a simple math exercise to distract them from their romantic thoughts. As a control, the experiment was repeated with people who claimed to be happily in love.

When a participant gazed at the photo of their rejecter beloved, several areas of the brain were stimulated, many more so than when looking at photos of a neutral person. The ventral tegmental area was triggered, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be integral to feelings of romantic love. The insular cortex and the anterior cingulated were stimulated, which are associated with pain and distress. And, most interestingly, the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofronatl/prefrontal cortext were stimulated. These parts of the brain are associated with craving and addiction, specifically the dopaminergic reward system evident in cocaine addiction.

At the 2010 American Psychological Association convention, Dr. Fisher stated that this is her proudest accomplishment. She reported that her findings can be used to explain some of the obsessive behaviors associated with romantic rejection. These finding could even help understand why some people have such extreme responses to a relationship ending that they turn to stalking, homicide or suicide.

In today's digital age, it's easier than ever to feed a romantic obsession. A person can stay abreast of the comings and goings of their ex via social networking, all from the comfort of home. It's easy to spend hours checking out new photos, status updates and wall-to-wall conversations.The heartbreak a person experiences can fuel these obsessive behaviors and can feel as addictive as cocaine.

Yet there is usually no need for rehab for this type of addiction. Dr. Fisher found the addictive responses experienced by participants in her study lessened the older the breakup. So, in the end, the old adage "time heals all wounds", even psychological ones, just may be true.

About the Author

Kathryn Stamoulis Ph.D.

Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., teaches at psychology at Hunter College, and specializes in adolescent and sexual development.

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