Heartbreak Looks a Lot Like Drug Withdrawal in the Brain

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Photo: Josue Hernandez/EyeEm/Getty Images

In honor of Valentine’s Day, Science of Us is spending this week talking about love — specifically, what happens when it goes wrong. If you ever wondered about the psychology of breakups, we’ve got you covered.

A few years ago, Yeshiva University neuroscientist Lucy Brown and her research team distributed flyers across several campuses in the New York area to recruit participants for a brain-imaging study. The flyers had one sentence highlighted: “Have you just been rejected in love but can’t let go?” Soon enough, Brown recalls, she had college students — who were asked to bring a photo of their beloved with them — crying in the brain scanner.

The brains of the forlorn study subjects looked a lot like drug addicts fiending for a fix. “In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the same areas of the brain that were active in the brains of cocaine addicts were active in these people who were heartbroken looking at a picture of their former romantic partner,” Brown tells Science of Us. “We crave the other person just as we crave nicotine or pain pills; you want to be near the other person, you’re constantly thinking about them, we even do dangerous things sometimes to win them back — we don’t eat or sleep.”

Indeed, in the 2010 paper that came from this tearful inquiry, all 15 of her crestfallen participants reported thinking about their beloved for over 85 percent of their waking hours, and all reported a yearning to rejoin in emotional union with their former partners. “Signs of lack of emotion control” happened for weeks or months after the initial breakup, the authors found, including “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.” (And there you have the shape of every romantic narrative.)

Brown says that when she tells heartbroken reporters about her research, there’s often a sense of relief about all this happening at a neurophysiological level, so it’s more real. In follow-up papers, Brown and her frequent collaborator, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, have argued that “romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction,” which can be seen across human cultures around the world. Just like drugs of abuse, romantic love — “a normal altered state” — starts with euphoria and ends with craving. “Unlike other addictions (that afflict only a percentage of the population), some form of love addiction is likely to occur to almost every human being that lives now and in our human past; few avoid the pain of romantic rejection either,” she and her colleagues write.

But it’s not that love is hopping onto the circuitry of addiction. Rather, Brown argues, drugs are exploiting the brain’s reward systems — dopamine pathways — that flare with loving affection. She thinks there’s an evolutionary explanation for heartbreak: It’s an activation of a survival mechanism, a longing to find protection in another, which jibes with social baseline theory, the provocative perspective that the brain expects to be in relationship with others to reduce risk and make it easier to accomplish goals. Some people — like those who are extra sensitive to separation or prone to rumination — may be more vulnerable to heartbreak, but that research still needs to be done.

The researchers digging into breakups show how they shake people on multiple levels, from the cognitive — distorting your sense of self — down to the emotional and physiological. These are emotional injuries: “Just as it takes time for bone cells reach across the gap in the break of a bone, neurons are growing and changing their physiology, they make new connections with other neurons,” Brown says, and that’s why it takes so much time to heal.

This also reveals how to deal those all-consuming thoughts about an ex. Namely, change your environmental cues: In one of the most powerful displays of behavior change, an estimated 95 percent of American GIs who were addicted to heroin while serving in the Vietnam War didn’t become re-addicted when they returned to the States, a shockingly hopeful finding that animates lots of recovery programs. One can attempt a similar departure in heartbreak recovery. Brown says that the best thing you can do is get away from your home, your city, your state, and thus your state of mind. After all, why else would the heartbreak travelogue — Eat Pray Love; Wild; The Snow Leopard be so endlessly compelling? “Go really far away, to where all the things are different, for a month if you can,” Brown says. “That’s a great way to change your feelings and change your sense of self, and begin to create a new self, really.”

Heartbreak Looks a Lot Like Drug Withdrawal in the Brain