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Heartbroken: What Does Neuroimaging Show About Your Pain?

Here's why losing someone you love evokes a potent urge to bring them back.


Courtney and Bob had struggled in their marriage. Still, Courtney wanted to save the relationship. Courtney felt as if her heart was breaking. What's was going on in Courtney's brain and heart that create this feeling of being heartbroken?

Research over the past decade has begun to clarify what’s going on in a brain when love is strong and then again when a relationship ends.

When your heart-throb is enhancing your life

According the a review of literature by the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, the first scientific study to investigate the neurobiology of being in love was published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology in 2005. In this study, psychologist Art Aron, neurologist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted fMRI scans on individuals who reported being deeply in love.

Aron, Brown and Fisher’s brain scans while the experiment’s participants were looking at images of their romantic partners revealed that feelings of romantic love triggered release of dopamine. This dopamine increase in turn was linked to higher blood flow in the caudate nucleus, the area of the brain that psychologists refer to as guiding “motivation and goal-oriented behavior” and “the rewards system.” Feelings of romantic love, by triggering increases in blood flow to the caudate nucleus, motivate you to obtain and retain the object of your affections.

Dopamine and the caudate nucleus—the reward system—can also be activated by nicotine, cocaine, and other drugs. In summary, the Berkeley review reports, “when you’re in love, it’s not as if you’re an addict. You are an addict.” Addiction means that when the trigger for this brain change is no longer present, you will do almost anything to get more of that trigger so that good feeling comes back again.

What happens therefore when you feel heartbroken from having lost someone you love?

Unfortunately, the consequence of heartbreak is similar to the response to an addict trying to quit. You will feel desparate to find a way to keep or to cause that person to return to your life. You will feel the impulse to follow after the person, keep contacting him or her, or go where the person might be found.

Aron, Brown and Fisher tested this hypothesis in a 2010 follow up study, this time scanning the brains of individuals in the first stages of heartbreak. All test subjects had reported that they thought about the loved one who had rejected them about 85 percent of their waking hours. They all longed for reconciliation.

In addition, the subjects showed “signs of lack of emotion control on a regular basis since the initial breakup, occurring regularly for weeks or months. This included inappropriate phoning, writing or e-mailing, pleading for reconciliation, sobbing for hours, drinking too much and/or making dramatic entrances and exits into the rejecter’s home, place of work or social space to express anger, despair or passionate love.” In other words, these were painful and incomplete breakups.

The researchers again showed the experimental subjects pictures of the person they loved, in this case, their ex-partners, again scanning their brains to obtain fMRI neuroimages as the subjects looked at the pictures. The researchers also asked the participants to verbalize how they felt, e.g., “He hurt me so much” or “ I’m so depressed”.

The neuro-imaging results of this study of heartbroken people revealed dramatic findings:

1. The brain systems showed they were still “in love.”

The caudate nucleus network of desire and expectation for gratification from their beloved were still hardwired to produce increases in dopamine and increased blood flow to the caudate nucleus. That is, even though the subjects knew cognitively that their relationships were over, part of each participant’s brain was still in motivation mode.

As one scientist quoted in the Greater Good article said, “In the case of a lost love, if the relationship had been sustained for a long time, the grieving person has thousands of neural circuits devoted to the lost person, and each of these has to be brought up and reconstructed to take into account the person’s absence.”

2 Some parts of the brain were trying to override others.

Now the longing and the realistic good-judgment areas of the brain were in conflict. The caudate nucleus propelled impulsive behavior driving to get a love “fix.” At the same time, the orbital frontal cortex, the part of the brain is involved in learning from emotions and controlling behavior was trying to change this pattern.

This brain conflict may correspond to the conflicting impulses of wanting to call the ex-lover begging to be taken back and at the same realizing that it probably would be better for you to let go of the old relationship, heal from the loss, and move on to find someone new in your life.

Why does feeling heartbroken feel physically as well as emotionally painful?

Another and perhaps the most direct link between heartbreak and pain comes again from fMRI brain imaging studies including the 2010 study referened previously. Seeing a photo and verbalizing feelings about the person who had rejected them, subjects in that study “lit up” the same areas of the brain associated with physical pain.

Another 2011 study led by Ethan Kross, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found similar overlap in brain responses to physical pain and to emotional pain from loss of love. Dr. Kross and his lab compared fMRI results between subjects who held a hot probe with those who were given a photo of an ex and were asked to remember their rejection. It turned out that when the subjects said,
Ow!” as they thought about the rejection by their loved one, as far as the brain could tell, the hurt was the same as if someone was holding a hot probe.

Why are you, and all of us, designed to suffer, feeling heartbroken from loss of love?

Heartbreak, which psychologists call “social pain,” evolved to create and maintain social ties between mates and within communities in order to increase animals’ chances of survival. PT blogger Loretta Graziano Breuning’s book I, Mammal explains well the reality that you share much, including your need for attachments, with your mammal ancestors. So the pain of heartbreak, while definitely unpleasant, has a purpose. Heartbreak focuses your attention to the vitally impactful issue of attachments in your life, hopefully inspiring you to learn, heal, and do better in similar fture relationships.

Above all, the pain of feeling heartbroken is there to remind you to slow down, to accept realistically that gone is gone, and therefore to nurture yourself so you can heal from your loss.

As you feel stronger and the pain in your heart mends, eventually the time will come to find new people with whom you can share companionship and love. Broken hearts do heal.


Related article by Dr. Heitler

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, So Here's a 6-Step How-To


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Harvard-educated Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D.,is author of Power of Two, a book, workbook, and website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships.

To learn more about overcoming the depression, anger and anxiety that can accompany heartbreak, see Dr. Heitler's latest book, Prescriptions Without Pills.

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