Friday, July 31, 2015
Here’s What Breaking Up Does to Your Brain
When the love of your life dumps you, you’re going to go a little nuts. But it’s a very specific form of crazy: There are actually conflicting neural systems active inside your brain. It’s like you’re falling in love all over again, only in reverse. Here’s how neuroscience explains it.
Addicted to Love
It doesn’t matter whether you were with your ex-lover for six months, four years, or more – a breakup throws your brain back into the obsession of early love. Everything that reminds you of that person – a photograph, places you used to go together, random thoughts – triggers activity in “reward” neurons inside the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area of the brain. These are the same parts of the brain that light up when scientists put people in the throes of that grossly cute can’t-think-about-anything-else stage of new love into an fMRI machine and ask them to look at photos of their beloved. As it happens, they’re also parts of the brain that respond to cocaine and nicotine.
Turning on the reward neurons releases repeated floods of the neurotransmitter dopamine. And the dopamine activates circuits inside the brain that create a craving for more. That craving gives you motivation, and encourages you to try out other behaviors that will help you get more of whatever it is you need. In the case of romance, the thing you need more of is your beloved.
As a romantic relationship develops into a long term partnership, that obsession fades away, even though thoughts of your partner still tickle the brain’s reward systems. But after a breakup, all those old can’t-get-enough feelings come flooding back. The brain’s reward systems are still expecting their romantic ‘fix’, but they’re not getting the responses they expect. And like someone in the depths of a drug addiction, they turn up the volume in an effort to get you to respond.
In this new context, the reward system is now the part of your brain that’s going to motivate you do something really dumb. Like drunk calling your ex, or initiating breakup sex.
Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Einstein College of Medicine who has studied romantic responses in the brain, explains that the motivation is more extreme than for other forms of social rejection because romance ties into more primal parts of the brain. “Other kinds of social rejection are much more cognitive,” she says. “[Romantic rejection] is a life changing thing, and involves systems that are at the same level as feeling hungry or thirsty.”
No wonder it hurts.