The State of Your Brain When Your Heart Is Broken

Rossamund
4 min readMay 2, 2023
Broken Heart

As many people know, when you’re reeling from the end of a romantic relationship you didn’t want to end, your emotional and bodily reactions go awry: You’re still in love and want to reconcile, but you’re also angry and confused; simultaneously, you long for the “fix” of the person who suddenly left your life, and you may go to great lengths to get it.

What does your brain look like when you’re going through a broken heart? This is not just an academic question. The answers can help you better understand not only what goes on inside your lovesick body, but also why humans have evolved to feel intense pain after a breakup.

Brain research and love research, from around 2005, set a baseline that informs research going forward: what the brain in love looks like.
In a study led by psychologist Art Aron, neuroscientist Lucy Brown, and anthropologist Helen Fisher, individuals in love looked at images of their lover, and simultaneously had their brains scanned in an fMRI machine, which maps neural activity by measuring changes in blood flow. in the brain. The fMRI’s vivid yellow, green, and blue hues — fireworks in the gray matter — clearly show that romantic love is activated in the caudate nucleus, via a flood of dopamine.

When you’re in the middle of a broken heart, you’re likely to feel pain somewhere in your body — perhaps in your chest or stomach. Some describe it as a dull ache, others as a stabbing pain, while still others experience it as a crushing sensation. The pain can last for a few seconds and then subside, or it can be chronic, hanging around all day and draining you like the pain of, say, a back injury or a migraine.

But how can you reconcile the sensations of your broken heart — when it isn’t, at least not literally — with biophysical reality? What actually happened in your body to create that sensation? The short answer is that nobody knows. The long answer is that the pain is probably caused by simultaneous hormonal triggering of the sympathetic activating system (most commonly referred to as fight-or-flight stress which increases the work of the heart and lungs) and the parasympathetic activating system (known as the residual-and-digest response). , which slows the heart and is tied to the social engagement system). As a result, it can be as if the accelerator and brake of the heart are being pushed simultaneously, and those contradictory actions create the sensation of heartbreak.

Although no one has yet proven what exactly is going on in the upper body cavities during a broken heart that might cause physical pain, fMRI studies of broken hearted individuals show that when the subjects saw and discussed their rejection, they trembled, cried, sighed, and angry, and in their brains these emotions trigger activity in the same areas associated with physical pain.

Another study exploring the emotional-physical pain relationship compared fMRI results in subjects who touched a hot probe to those who looked at photos of former partners and mentally relived the experience of rejection. The results confirmed that social rejection and physical pain are rooted in the exact same brain regions. So when you say you’re “heartbroken” by being rejected by someone close to you, you’re not just leaning on a metaphor. As far as your brain is concerned, the pain you feel is no different from a stab wound.

This is very much in line with the discovery that love can be addictive. Just as you might think of “heartbreak” as a verbal expression of our pain or saying we “can’t quit” someone, these aren’t really artificial constructs — they are rooted in physical reality. How beautiful science is, and especially your brain images, should reveal that metaphor is not a poetic flight of fantasy.

But it’s important to note that heartbreak falls under the rubric of what psychologists specializing in pain call “social pain” — the activation of pain in response to the loss or threat to social connection. From an evolutionary perspective, the “social pain” of separation most likely had a purpose in the savannas that were the hunting and gathering grounds of your ancestors.
There, security relies on numbers; any exclusion, including separation from a group or partner, signifies death, just as physical pain can signal life-threatening injury.
Psychologists reasoned that the neural circuits of physical pain and emotional pain evolved to share a common pathway for warning protohumans of danger; physical and emotional pain, when a saber-toothed lion lurk in the bushes, is a cue to pay attention or risk death.

On the surface, that function doesn’t seem all that relevant right now — after all, few people risk being attacked by a wild animal attacking you from behind at any given moment, and living alone doesn’t mean a slow and lonely death. But still, pain is there to teach you something. It focuses your attention on significant social events and forces you to study, correct, avoid, and move on.

How to Get Over Heartbreak, According to Psychologists

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