Using the logic of neuroscience to heal from a breakup

Healing from a break-up should be taken as seriously as healing from a broken arm, says psychiatrist Dr. Guy Winch.

lonely woman sitting on edge of bed at sunset missing her spouse

It takes more than a little time to heal from the heartache of a breakup.

Photo by Ken Stocker on Shutterstock
  • According to a study from anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, when humans fall in love, regions of the brain that are rich in dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in feeling pleasure) light up and parts of the brain that are used in fear and social judgment are operating at lower rates.
  • The surge and decline of hormones in our brains when we experience a breakup are also similar to those felt when withdrawing from an addiction to drugs - and the pain felt during a breakup has appeared on MRI scans as similar to the physical pain felt with a severe burn or broken arm.
  • Understanding the neuroscience of heartbreak can help us better understand how to heal from the physical and emotional pain caused by a breakup, according to well-known psychiatrist and author Dr. Guy Winch.


What happens in your brain when you’re in love

While the feeling of being in love is seemingly magical, there are scientific reasons why being in love feels so good. And as such, there are scientific reasons why falling out of love or going through the heartache of a breakup feels so awful.

Biological anthropologist and well-respected human behavior researcher Dr. Helen Fisher published a groundbreaking study in 2005 that included the very first functional MRI images of the brains of people who were in the midst of "romantic love".

The team of researchers, led by Dr. Fisher, analyzed 2500 brain scans of students who viewed photos of someone special to them (in a romantic capacity) and compared those with scans taken of students who viewed photos of acquaintances.

In the instances where people were shown photos of individuals that they were romantically involved with, the brain would show activity in regions such as the caudate nucleus, which is a region of the brain associated with reward detection and the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which is associated with pleasure and motivation.

These are also areas of the brain that are rich with dopamine, which is a type of neurotransmitter that plays a big role in feeling pleasure. The role of dopamine in our system is to activate the reward circuit, which makes whatever we're doing at the time a more pleasurable experience that can be equated to the type of euphoria associated with the use of addictive substances such as cocaine or alcohol.

Not only does the human brain work to amplify positive emotions when it experiences love, but the neural pathways that are responsible for negative emotions such as fear are deactivated. When we are engaged in what is considered "romantic love," the neural mechanism that is responsible for making assessments of other people and formulating fear-based thoughts shuts down.

A 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University in New York (which also included Dr. Fisher) concluded that it's possible to feel these effects with someone even after decades of marriage.

The study looked at MRI scans of couples who had been married an average of 21 years, and while the euphoria that comes with falling in love may have changed, the same heightened levels of activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brain that were found in new couples were also seen on these MRI scans.

When we are in love, our bodies are actively producing feel-good hormones and denying the release of negative hormones - and when this process suddenly stops, the "withdrawal" we feel can be extremely difficult to process both on an emotional and physiological level.

What happens in your brain when you’re going through a breakup

A study performed by researchers Lucy Brown, Xiomeng Xu, and Dr. Fisher scanned the activity in the brains of 15 young adults who had all experienced unwanted breakups yet still reported feeling "in love" with the person.

All of these individuals were in various stages of break up. Some still sent messages to their loved ones that went unanswered, and some simply feeling depressed that the relationship was over.

The individuals were shown photos of their former partners, and the scans taken during this time showed activity in several different areas of the brain, including the ventral tegmental, the ventral striatum, and the nucleus accumbens. All three areas are a part of our reward/motivation system, which communicates through the release of dopamine.

There is a direct link between those who have experienced rejection from someone they love (an ex-partner, for example) and those who have experienced withdrawal from addictive substances.

"Romantic love can be a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well...and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going poorly."

- Helen Fisher

What if we cared for broken hearts the same way we care for broken bones?

According to Dr. Guy Winch, psychologist and author of "How to Fix a Broken Heart," heartbreak is a form of grief and loss that can cause serious issues with insomnia, anxiety and even depression or suicidal thoughts. According to Winch, who is known to specialize in "emotional first aid," heartbreak should be taken very seriously, as should our efforts to recover from it.

Columbia University cognitive neuroscientist Edward Smith completed a series of studies and tests in 2011 that proved the pain we feel during heartbreak is similar to physical pain we might feel due to a severe burn or broken arm.

In these studies, the goal was to see what happens in the brains of people who have recently been through a breakup with a long-term partner.

In the MRI images of these people struggling with recent heartbreak, the parts of the brain that lit up were the same parts of the brain that are active when you experience physical pain.

Dr. Winch, in an interview with Blinkist Magazine, explained a similar study that he was a part of where physical pain that was rated as level 8 (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being almost intolerable pain) showed similar results to an MRI taken by someone who had just talked about and relived their breakup.

The physical pain, which only lasted 7 seconds, registered the same in the patient's brain as the emotional pain of the breakup, which for some can last for days, weeks, or even months.

Understanding this link between heartbreak and physical pain should allow us to take a more all-encompassing approach to heal from the pain of a breakup.

Using logic and neuroscience to heal from a breakup

lonely sad woman in empty bed hand on pillow missing her spouse

"It's not just about time and waiting it out - it's about taking steps." - Dr. Guy Winch

Photo by Tero Vesalainen on Shutterstock

There are a few things we can do that are essential to surviving and healing from heartbreak, based on what we know from these studies.

Avoiding visual reminders of your ex-partner may seem like an obvious answer to help you recover, but sentimental reminders such as pictures or revisiting places you used to spend time with them are very likely to create dopamine surges in your brain that relate to feelings of craving and withdrawal.

Replacing those surges of dopamine is the next positive step: taking up a fitness class or joining a gym is something many people do to "power through" a breakup, but exercise can also lead to the release of endorphins that trigger a positive feeling throughout the body and brain.

Finding a "new normal" after a heartbreak can seem impossible - but one of the first things you need to do is to recalibrate your mind. Making a list of reasons your ex-partner wasn't perfect or being honest with yourself about parts of that relationship that were negative or unhealthy can be the beginning of resetting your system to see things in a more true light.

According to Dr. Winch, one of the biggest hurdles to recalibrating your mind and adapting to life without your ex-partner is that we don't find closure.

Winch suggests that we try to accept the reason for the breakup or even find another reason. Maybe the relationship would not have worked out because you wanted different things in life or because they were not emotionally available for you. Finding logic in heartbreak can be a good start to the healing process.



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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he was accused of sleeping with other men's wives and publicly talking about it, as well as killing for mere amusement. Supposedly, during one competition he was presiding over, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts as no prisoners were available. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

He was also said to have caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others he burned at the stake.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

He died by suicide.

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demi-god Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

A burning desire to fight both animals and humans as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a conical fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by the Roman historian Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula. How fitting.

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