How Breakups Work

This Is Your Brain on a Breakup

Breakups affect the heart -- and the head.
Breakups affect the heart -- and the head.
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

To the brain, getting dumped is the pain equivalent of getting burned by a hot cup of coffee. A 2011 study conducted by a team of neurologists at the Einstein College of Medicine found that merely looking at a photograph of an ex-partner energized the neurological regions -- the second somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula, to be precise -- that also process physical discomfort [source: Kross et al]. Defensively, the dejected brain also signals the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and amplifies the body's immune defenses as though warding off emotional pathogens [source: Fisher]. Indeed, as additional research further confirms, matters of the heart and mind are intimately connected.

Compare functional MRI (fMRI) scans of people recovering from recent breakups and those of people overcoming a cocaine addiction, and the irrational behaviors that go along with breakup coping become even more understandable. In other words, getting over a relationship engages the same neural circuitry as overcoming an addiction, which is why the absence of lost loves is felt so potently that it stimulates literal cravings for their presence [source: Fisher et al].

In people who had been dumped, looking at photographs of former romantic partners stimulated their brains' reward systems, which initially secreted pleasure-inducing dopamine at the sight of those breakup initiators in anticipation of their company. But the sad recognition that an ex-partner won't be coming around anymore deprives the reward system of its stimulus, or love drug, kick-starting the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens in the central brain. That duo triggers the motivational urge to possibly see the person and also reanalyze the benefits and drawbacks associated with the relationship -- as manifested by the rehashing of past events people often engage in while processing a breakup [source: Fisher et al]. And in a domino-like effect, that unsatisfied reward system trips the nearby prefrontal cortex, which elicits feelings of frustration and anger [source: Fisher].

On a more positive note, the fMRI data also revealed that the sting of heartache eases with time. Follow-up brain scans months after breakups found lowered levels of activity in regions associated with romantic motivation [source: Fisher et al]. By the same token, that also underscores the hard reality that there's no quick and easy route to dissolving amorous attachments. And during that challenging recovery period, it's often tempting to satisfy that neurological craving and rekindle the flame.