OUCH! Why Heartbreak Hurts: Your Brain On Love

Pain of rejection really hurts, just like physical pain. A recent study found the same parts of the brain get activated when feeling rejected from love as when physically burned. The study involved 40 recently dumped heartbroken people, putting them in an MRI, had them stare at a picture of their ex, and took some MRI pictures. Those same 40 people were then subjected to a physical pain (heat… don’t worry not scalding hot… ), took some MRI photos, and compared the results. Burned emotionally, literally lit up the brain in the same areas as being physically burned. This adds to the growing body of research, on love which is proving heartbreak really may indeed hurt.

Love. What else can cause such obsessions, cravings, mood swings, compulsions, distortions of reality, changes in personality, losses of self-control, and risk-taking? Addiction, that’s what. Biologists, psychologists, poets, and musicians have long been at odds over whether love is a deeply spiritual emotion, or perhaps a potentially harmful biological addiction. In a research study, led by biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, scientists hooked up recently rejected lovers to an MRI machine to monitor their brain activity. The results seem to indicate that both camps may be correct.

The researchers used MRI scans to study what parts of the brain were activated in the recently heartbroken. They recruited ten women and five men who were recently dumped by people with whom they were still intensely in love. Each participant filled out a survey called the Passionate Love Scale to assess the degree to which they experienced feelings of romantic love. Finally, while in the MRI machine, participants looked at a photograph of their dumper while the scientists took pictures of their brain activity.

While viewing photographs of their rejecters, the subjects reported feelings of obsession, protest, passion, anger, hope, regret, and despair. The area of the brain that lit up during the MRI scanincluded the limbic regions associated with basic reward and survival mechanisms. Additionally, the researchers saw activity in the forebrain regions known to be associated with gain and loss, addiction, cocaine cravings, and emotional regulation.

Rejection by a lover is a powerful negative experience that can cause people to slide into depression or commit extreme acts. Some people have even committed suicide or homicide in response to rejection. The research presented here helps illustrate why rejection hurts so much and where the need to be accepted by a lover originates.

The authors of the study explain that the limbic reward system involved in feelings of romantic love and rejection are associated with biological survival mechanisms and imperatives, which suggest an evolutionary link between the feeling of romantic love and the naturally selected need to pass on one’s genes. This notion is reinforced by the concurrent activity of brain centers involved in addiction.

Our brains do their utmost to convince us to reproduce, even going so far as to cause extreme emotional pain and agony when we are denied the opportunity with people we have identified as good mates. Conversely, the involvement of emotional regulation centers certainly indicates that love is more than a simple craving or biological imperative; it is a complex emotion fully integrated into our consciousnesses, the nature of which fMRI machines still cannot fully illuminate.

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