We all know breakups are hard and most times painful, but why? Why do we suffer? Why do we spend almost every waking hour missing our (ex) partner? Why does it take so much time to heal? Well a study, by the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, investigates the neurobiology of being in love and why we experience pain and heartache after a breakup or loss of a loved one.

To understand heartbreak, we must first understand being in love. In this study, psychologist Art Aron, neurologist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher conducted fMRI scans on individuals who reported being deeply in love to study brain reactions. Brain scans were performed while participants looked at images of their loved ones. The scans revealed releases of dopamine resulting in higher blood flow in the caudate nucleus – this section of the brain is responsible for motivation and goal setting, as well as the rewards system. Dopamine released in the caudate nucleus is also activated by nicotine, cocaine, and other drugs. So basically, when we are in love, we are addicts. This explains the euphoric high one feels when in love and the motivation behind a relationship – as well as the withdrawal effects after a breakup.

In a follow up study, performed by the same doctors, brain scans were used to observe brain activity when recently heartbroken participants viewed images of their ex partners. Participants reported thinking about their ex partners on average 85% of their waking hours following the breakup. They also showed signs of no emotional control, with excessive efforts to reconcile through phone calls, emailing, making unannounced visits, crying, and even turning to alcohol. Participants also admitted to being depressed and hurt.

Interestingly, even when heartbroken, the brain still shows signs of being “in love” with the award system/motivation mode still active. This is because the brain is still programed to produce increases in dopamine and increased blood flow to the caudate nucleus, as they are still devoted to their ex partner. Another observation made was one part of the brain trying to override another. This happens when a person feels an impulsive urge to fix things or call an ex, but then the orbital frontal cortex interrupts with a reminder that letting go and moving on would be best.

Heartbreak is believed to be a social pain that is meant to “maintain social ties between mates and within communities in order to increase animals’ chances of survival.” Our mammal instincts have a need for attachment. Painful heartbreaks help us become more aware of how impactful our attachments are. We are meant to learn and grow to better our next relationships.

If you are struggling to cope with an emotional event in your life. Please contact a medical professional at Crownview Medical Group. We are trained professionals who specialize in treatments and therapy to help you live life as your best self.



Heartbroken: What Does Neuroimaging Show About Your Pain. (2014, July 18). Psychology Today. Retrieved July 20, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201407/heartbroken-what-does-neuroimaging-show-about-your-pain