Those who pine over a lost love might have a biological reason for their prolonged yearning. New brain research suggests getting over romantic rejection might be akin to kicking an addiction.
The study is one of the first to examine the brains of the recently broken-hearted who have trouble letting go of their relationship.
The researchers found that, for heartbroken men and women, looking at photographs of former partners activated regions in the brain associated with rewards, addiction cravings, control of emotions, feelings of attachment and physical pain and distress.
The results provide insight into why it might be hard for some people to get over a break up, and why, in some cases, people are driven to commit extreme behaviors, such as stalking and homicide, after losing love.
"Romantic love is an addiction," said study author Helen E. Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies love. "It’s a very powerfully wonderful addiction when things are going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when things are going poorly," she said.
The researchers speculate the brain's response to romantic rejection may have an evolutionary basis.
"I think the brain circuitry for romantic love evolved millions of years ago, to enable our ancestors to focus their mating energy on just one person at a time and start that mating process," Fisher said. "And when you've been rejected in love, you have lost life's greatest prize, which is a mating partner."
"This brain system becomes activated probably to help you try to win this person back so you focus on them and crave them and try to get them back," she said.
Brains of the heart-broken
Fisher and her colleagues scanned the brains of 15 college-aged volunteers (10 women and 5 men) who had all recently experienced a break up, but were still in love with the person who had rejected them. The average length of the relationship was about 2 years, and about 2 months had passed, on average, since the relationship ended.
All participants scored high on the Passionate Love Scale, a questionnaire psychologists use to measure the intensity of romantic feelings. Participants also said they spent more than 85 percent of their waking hours thinking about their rejecter.
In the experiment, the subjects viewed a photograph of their former partner and were asked to think about events that occurred with him or her. The subjects also looked at a neutral image of a familiar person, such as a classmate or friend of a friend. To try and suppress the romantic feelings conjured up from the first half of the experiment, the researchers had participants compete a math exercise in between viewing the rejecter photograph and the neutral photograph.
Among the findings
- Viewing their former loved one stimulated a region of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, involved in motivation and reward. Previous work has found this region is also active in people who are madly in love. This makes sense, because "Whether you're happily in love or whether you're unhappily in love, you're still in love," Fisher said.
- Brain regions known as the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex were also activated. These regions are known to be associated with intense cocaine addiction and cigarette addiction.
- There was also increased activity in the brain's insular cortex and the anterior cingulated, regions associated with physical pain and distress.
Some good news
The researchers did find some good news for romantically rejected: time seems to heal. The more time that had passed since the breakup, the less activity there was in a brain region associated with attachment.
Brain areas involved in emotion regulation, decision making and evaluation were also active when participants viewed their rejecter. This suggests participants were learning from their past romantic experience, evaluating their gains and losses and figuring out how to deal with the situation, Fisher said.
These findings suggest that talking about their experience, rather than simply moping in grief, may have therapeutic benefits for the lovelorn.
"It seems to be healthy for the brain, to instead of just wallowing in despair, to think about the situation more actively and try to work out how you're going to handle it." Fisher said.
The results were published in the July issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.