Friday, May 22, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #107: What Causes Heartbreak?

As some of you may have noticed, several months ago now I got a new boyfriend. Well, that new boyfriend is now an old boyfriend because we broke up. As usual, I was super-fucking-stoked about the relationship, and also as usual, I was super-fucking-wrong. I chose to respond to the crushing feelings of despair in the only logical way – by eating a banana split for dinner. And then I decided to blog about it.

According to a 2005 study led by neurologist Lucy Brown, psychologist Art Aron, and anthropologist Helen Fisher, romantic love causes a rush of dopamine into the region of the brain associated with goal-seeking behavior and feelings of motivation. The process of falling in love is neurologically identical to the process of becoming addicted to drugs. Love is not a feeling; it is what scientists refer to as a “goal-oriented motivational state” or, to put it bluntly, an addiction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, learning this does not make me feel any better.

In 2010, the researchers set out to discover what causes the sobbing, wailing, drinking too much, eating of banana splits for dinner, etc. that occurs in the wake of a breakup. They gathered up several people who had just been dumped and who reported spending at least 85 percent of their time thinking about the lost object of their affection and pining for reconciliation. These people admitted to an inability to control their emotions and behavior, resulting in everything from crying for hours, to getting drunk, to calling, texting, or emailing the ex, to turning up at the ex’s place of work to have a go at them. I’ve been on the receiving end of that last one before, though not this time around, so there’s that to be thankful for.

After popping the heartbroken individuals into fMRI machines like slices of weepy bread into a big magnetic toaster, the researchers discovered that the lovelorn test subjects were still showing plenty of activity in the reward centers of their brains. Like a newly ex-smoker chewing desperately at a lollipop, the lovelorn study participants were still seeking the “fix” of their lover’s affection. The researchers also found signs of activity in other parts of the brain, such as those linked to controlling emotions and behavior. Someone was lying in that fMRI machine fighting off the urge to take a big revenge dump on the hood of someone’s Porsche. Let’s hope they were successful.

But what causes the feelings of physical pain so commonly referred to as a “broken heart”? Well, the short answer is, no one knows. But according to a 2009 study from researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of Arizona, activity in the parts of the brain related to emotional reactivity, especially related to a particularly stressful experience like heartbreak, can cause a “biological cascade” that overstimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve begins in the brain stem and travels down the neck into the chest and abdomen. The researchers believe that overstimulation of this nerve is responsible for the chest pain and nausea called “heartbreak.”

Still others think that the emotional pain of a breakup could simultaneously trigger both the fight-or-flight response and the lesser known opposite response, hilariously dubbed the rest-and-digest response. The chest pain, then, would be a result of the heart struggling to cope with hormonal commands to speed up and slow down at the same time. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to die of a broken heart, perhaps due to the hormonal effects of emotional stress. While science doesn’t yet fully understand the cause of the physical sensation of heartbreak, it’s clear that the pain of social rejection originates in the same part of the brain as physical pain, so that, in the words of author Meghan Laslocky, “As far as your brain is concerned, the pain you feel is no different from a stab wound.”

I know how you feel, Tesco Pineapple juice.
Image by NOGG3R5 from