Vol. 24, Issue 1: Fall 2016
Most individuals will experience a relationship at one point in their lifetime. Relationships can be fulfilling, but with great joy comes great sadness as partnerships can also be transient and result in heartbreak. The end of a relationship leads to the termination of the emotional, physical, and mental connection with another, which can be challenging and may usher discomfort known as “heartbreak.” Everyone has heard of heartbreak and has used the term in a sentence, but few know what the biological effects of it. It is interesting, though, how this tragedy is described as when we know the heart is not literally broken. Scientists at Rutgers University conducted a study on ten women and five men from the State University of New York at Stony Brook to further study the concept of heartbreak.
The participants in the study at Rutgers University were selected on the basis of whether or not they had been recently heartbroken. The exes had rejected the participants an average of 63 days prior to the beginning of the study. But despite the break ups, the participants still desired to reunite with their former significant others. The study had three stages. The first stage was the Rejecter Stimulus. It consisted of scientists displaying a photo of the participant’s ex-lover. As the participant viewed the image, they were to think back to specific intimate events that the two had shared. After 30 seconds, the participant was to perform the second stage, or “countback task,” which was utilized in order to avoid the carry-over effect after the participant's viewing of the rejecter stimulus. The countback task consisted of counting backwards by multiples of seven for 40 seconds from the specified number given by the researcher. Finally, the third stage was the displaying of the Neutral Stimulus. The neutral stimulus was an incorporation of a picture of the participant's close, but platonic friend that was the same sex and similar age of the participant’s ex-lover. While this stimulus was shown, the participant was to think of a neutral memory that the two had together. This stage was to determine how the participant’s brain activity during the Rejecter Stimulus looked in the fMRIs in comparison to their brain activity during the Neutral Stimulus. All three stages were then repeated six times. Throughout the experiment, the participants’ brain activity was measured by taking an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). fMRI’s measure blood flow in certain areas of the brain. It is hypothesized that increased blood flow to an area is an indicator that that region is more active and therefore can be an indicator of which areas are responsible for certain mental processes. By looking at the fMRI’s, the researchers were able to detect which regions of the brain were activated while one experiences heartbreak. The region in the brain that was active during the rejecter stimulus (stage one), in comparison to the neutral stimulus (stage three), was the right nucleus accumbens core in the cortical and subcortical areas. This area in the brain is associated with craving and addiction in tandem with playing a central role in the reward system. Their function is dictated by two neurotransmitters, serotonin, which detects satiety and inhibition, and dopamine, which detect desire and cravings. For example, the nucleus accumbens is activated when cocaine enters the body. This discovery suggests that love, like cocaine, is addictive. If love is similar to cocaine addiction, then like any dependency, the mind goes through withdrawal. The effects on the brain from heartbreak can mirror that of drug withdrawal during rehabilitation.
The fMRI scans determined that there was another part of the brain that was also more active during the rejecter stimulus. fMRI scans of the insular cortex has been studied to be illustrative of physical pain. With more insular activity in the fMRI scans, the scientists inferred that not only is heartbreak emotional, but it is also physical. As this study concluded, heartbreak is not an imagined feeling. Clear fMRI scans illustrating increased activity in the right nucleus accumbens core and the insular cortex region point to the fact that love is addictive and the loss of results in physical human pain. From this study, scientists have further understood the effects that heartbreak has on the brain and can improve their synthesis of drugs that can more effectively treat patients that develop mental disorders spurred by the termination of a relationship.