Why do breakup songs hurt so good?

The cure for heartache?
The cure for heartache?
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For years, Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher has tirelessly analyzed the evolutionary purposes and neurological processes of love and its bizarre host of attendant behaviors. In doing so, she and her colleagues have uncovered how the human brain becomes intoxicated with the sensation of falling head over heels, and also what happens when that love drug is ripped away. As anyone who's been through a painful breakup may likely guess, the results aren't pretty.

Functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans of 10 women and five men who recently had been on the receiving end of a breakup revealed a flurry of neurological activity at the mere sight of their ex's photograph. Areas of the brain associated with addiction, motivation and anticipation of loss glittered on the fMRI screens, explaining people's post-breakup tendencies to feel simultaneously hopeless, yet longing to see their lost loves and make amends [source: Fisher et al]. Parting ways with a lover is so potently painful, the brain processes its occurrence the same as it would withdrawal from a cocaine addiction [source: Fisher et al].

To help participants wipe their mental slates clean of their angst-inducing exes, the researchers instructed them to count backward by 7s from 9,247. After 40 seconds or so, their brain activity returned to neutral, distress momentarily soothed by the mental task of arithmetic. What Fisher and her colleagues may not have realized, however, was that there's an easier way to ease the sting of romantic loss. To quell the breakup blues, the quickest and most potent prescription often comes in musical form [source: O'Connor].

In the face of emotional loss, breakup songs can offer incomparable solace. Whether someone is in need of a pep talk on survival from Gloria Gaynor, or a bitter tell-off courtesy of Bob Dylan or unadulterated anguish out of Sam Cooke, breakup songs say it all for us, providing space to wallow and, eventually, motivation to move on. A growing body of research also indicates that listening to breakup songs isn't just a self-indulgent exercise in sappiness. Music doesn't just go in one ear and out the other -- it actually possesses pain-mitigating properties.