It’s a strange thing, love. And such a cliché thing to say too. But, just think about it, switch on your conscious perception. It is the theme of every second song on the radio, so many poems, books, inspiration for sculpture, paintings. You name it. Human creation and consciousness orbit around it. No one banters about it, when it ends (unless you were born as a steel armour and your heart is a cold stone). It is either brought about in the context of some eye-opening, life-changing milestone, or as a painful, profound incidence, always associated with taking time, getting over, or moving on. Someone overly dramatic named it a “heartbreak” after all.
Why is that? What in our consciousness decides on a heartbreak being such an impactful, almost controlling force? I guess everyone has that experience of feeling – all fancy words aside – shitty and dull after a break-up. Why? What happens in your brain that makes you experience physical pain after this happens?
How many times have you heard that love is a drug? Many, right? Again, cliché. One of my favourite artists, Lana del Rey, who is mostly known for lyrics featuring cocaine, older rich men and multitude of promiscuous sexual encounters, in her “Gods and Monsters” probably unconsciously (scouse me for judging) combines heartbreak and drugs, singing:
“You’ve got that medicine I need; Dope, shoot it up straight to the heart please”.
That love and drugs have a lot in common in terms of their action on human central and peripheral nervous system is, strikingly, a scientifically valid statement. Intrigued?
So it is all about feeling happy. Isn’t it? It’s about finding certain behaviours that make us feel good and replicating them. That’s why we keep dating someone we like. Dating as a concept might seem a twenty-first century invention, however, it has an old, evolutionarily conserved history to it. As expansion of cognitive capacity of the brain progressed, a system that guided our humanoid ancestors towards survival-granting behaviours emerged. Blandly, as it may seem, all organisms, including humans, live to pass on their gene pool to their children, as proposed by George William in the 1960s and expanded brilliantly by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene”. What this means, in a nutshell, is that the behaviours of Karen and Susan, multifaceted and complex white girls, spiritual, vegan, cruelty-free, creative deep-thinkers, are also controlled by an old (from the evolution’s point of view) machinery, encapsulated in their skulls called a reward system. Generally, the brain motivates towards behaviours that lead to Karen and Susan’s survival, such as eating (organic avocado on gluten-free paraben-free toast), drinking (organic spring water, but also mimosas, because that is, like, healthy and good for you), but also to spreading their own genetic pool to pass their precious selves onto cute pedigree. Very simple as a concept – once the hunger and thirst (both for fluids and for sexual encounters) of humans is satisfied, these behaviours (eating, drinking, etc.) are rewarded by an immediate surge of blissful happiness, that we feel in our heads. Brain is smart to work like this.
Feeling happy is encoded in an intricate biochemistry inside Karen’s brain. The way neurons communicate with each other, in order to cause the overall “feeling”, is through small molecules (elegantly called neurotransmitters, oh wow, like so smart). These are secreted (spewed out) from one neuron to another and function like sort of a text message with instructions, for example saying “umm don’t text him”, or “go to bed already”. This, generally, leads to activation, or deactivation of certain brain regions, that operate together to cause our body to make decisions (sometimes bad ones, too). The molecules primarily involved in transmission of happiness are called serotonin and dopamine, which I am sure many of you have heard of, or even seen at Coachella, tattooed on Karen’s forearm (likely with cardinal structural insults to organic chemistry). When feeling happy (or, more precisely immediately before that) both molecules flood a particular brain region called the caudate nucleus. So, to scientifically conclude, engaging in evolutionarily favoured actions, leads to activation of serotonin-dopamine-reward system and through switching on caudate nucleus in the brain underlies goal-oriented motivational behaviours.
Alright, but what does all this have to do with love? Very interestingly, first experiments on the brain in love – legitimate and decent approaches to describe what happens in our heads when we are all hearts – were conducted at the beginning of this century. A lot of these experiments used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), which relies on the fact that neuronal activity changes the blood flow in the brain. By measuring these changes, fMRI allows to map activated brain regions. In a simple experiment to address the impact of romantic love on the brain, the subjects who were head over heels for their significant others were asked to look at pictures of their better halves. fMRI imaging during such a viewing showed that romantic love indeed activates caudate nucleus and floods it with dopamine.
Now, why is that exciting? Romantic love is not the only thing that activates our caudate reward system. Nicotine and cocaine follow exactly the same neurobiochemical pathway. These substances activate caudate nucleus too and induce goal-oriented motivational state – it makes you feel good, you want more. As far as brain circuitry goes, when you’re in love, you’re addicted.
From a neuroscience point of view, the most interesting conclusions were drawn, when the researchers that showed the connection between romance and caudate nucleus investigated broken hearts. Cold-heartedly, they gathered up a cohort of people that were going through a break-up (and met certain criteria to assure that they were indeed going through hell – inappropriate emails, compulsive texting, depressive-like states, we all know). These people were then subjected to a rather unpleasant experience, in parallel undergoing fMRI. They were asked to look at pictures of their ex-partners, that they have just parted with. Surprisingly (or not), the caudate nucleus still responded, still with efforts to put the brain in a goal-oriented behaviour, similarly to romantic love or the drugs. The caudate nucleus was still in love. Moreover, other brain parts, that typically fire in individuals addicted to drugs and going through withdrawal were activated too, as the motivation could not be fulfilled. Additionally, there were other parts of the brain that were responded to this unpleasant stimulus (and tried to talk caudate out of it). One of the most interesting observation was the activation of the frontal orbital cortex, a brain region known for emotional learning and behaviour control. This is why, very often during break-up, you feel the urge to text your ex, to show up at their house, to beg on your knees, but something (I hope, and if not – get yourself some friends) tells you that you will regret it later. That’s, partially, your frontal cortex talking.
What became apparent in these experiments too, is that in case of some heartbroken subjects, looking at the photo of their ex, or talking about them, elicited anger, tears, distress and an emotional state that activated the same brain region that is associated with physical pain. This implies that social rejection and physical pain use the same wiring centres in the brain. Being “in pain” when heartbroken is to a neuroscience not different from stepping onto a Lego block with your bare foot.
In fact, when researching the topic, I was surprised how many studies were conducted to unravel the neurochemistry of falling in love or breaking up. Why you might ask? The answer lies, I believe, in something I mentioned already in the second paragraph. This experience of such a depressive-like state (or actually, without the -like) is shared among the majority of humans. Some deal with it better and faster than others, but in the long run, there is only this much you can do. Wait, reflect and give it time. We live in the rushed world of deadlines, everything screams at you not to waste any precious moments of your existence, that you live only once, and that water under the bridge. No wonder then, that business minds see that as a potentially enormous market for pharma industry. If there was a pill to help you regain the powers to be happy and live your life to the fullest, lots of people would take no time hesitating. If heartbreak engages identical brain centres as physical pain and if it uses the same biochemical mechanisms as depression, or drug withdrawal, there is a very high likelihood, that it is treatable. The clinical endeavours of pharmaceutical companies to treat depression and anxiety (I feel like these two words define our generation, as a lot of people develop anxiety after a mosquito bite) have yielded a multi-million profits after developing drugs that help people ameliorate the symptoms. Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, a minor short-acting tranquilizer used to treat global anxiety disorder has entered the world of social media, memes and our (well at least mine) daily jokes for good. In fact, clinical trials of psychoactive drugs initiated by pharma industry, often require facing a catastrophic failure at the final stage of implementing, which makes millions of dollars investment die on the spot. However, once tested successful, a new drug can grant a long and happy life of the company. Eli Lilly, a global pharma company, is mostly known for manufacturing fluoxetine – or Prozac, famous for its selectivity in inhibition of serotonin reuptake, ergo, antidepressant action.
The question remains in the ethics of such an endeavour. In her “The little book of heartbreak”, Meghan Laslocky inspires with some important questions. I guess here is where I leave it at. If there was a pill to “cure” you from your feelings, would you take it? If there was a shot, for you to love, or rather unlove, would you take it? Pushing it further – if there was a potion, that made someone love you, would you use it?