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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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The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.