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.
- 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
"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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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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