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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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Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."