The neurochemistry of a broken heart

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?


Why you so dramatic?

You guys know those days when you swan through the city to get to work like you just own it? I know, for me this also constitutes the exception. It is a bit like you find yourself thinking “did Susan put some MDMA in my drink, whynehell am I so motivated?”. Here I was today, cherishing my Motivation Wednesday. Struting through the hallway, totally feeling my fancy-all-black-I-am-so-Berlin-so-cool-so-fucking-cool look, feeling like an extra special scientist, giving off my usual “Come to mother dust, I will tell you how to solve all your problems”. Even singing “Rockabye”. So I enter my office and first thing I do is put the kettle on and prepare myself a big mug of coffee, then check emails and all this shindig.

To make coffee, we use this AeroPress machine. The one that has a little metal sieve on the bottom (here you put the ground coffee) and then you have to sort of press the boiling water through. So I am standing there, fidgeting like I do, and since the office door is closed, doing a little Mariah Carey turn (you guys know, the one when she just turns the chest and shoulders while having the hips still facing the opposite direction?). In that one second, my hand makes the wrong move.

Everything, I mean everything – the floor, the desk, the window, the fridge, the cupboard, the trash cans, my trousers on the spot gets covered in coffee (and milk, because I was cunning enough to pour it already in advance). Here I am, standing in the big puddle of double shot espresso, extra syrup, no foam (unavailable with AeroPress), Colombian grind, with liquid dripping from the window pane on my head, thinking which karma just came back at me. There goes my Motivation Wednesday.

I knew something was shady.

Venus Spring Blowout

The online dating is a thang now, you know. One of my best friends, Latina Rodriguez chats to me about it on a daily basis and I live for her stories! Especially now that I am back to single life (and not yet ready to mingle, but I am very slowly getting there).  Feels a bit like recovering from a long marathon that you didn’t really prepare your fat body and fossilized joints for. But enough of the cheesecake!
The dating app is – without beating around the bush – full of fucking weirdos. Seriously, there is a market for everything. I don’t want to turn into some kind of freegan poetry slam, but if you think you can’t make money of your used underwear, well let me prove you wrong right there! When you finally get to write with someone that is – a- normal (doesn’t want to feed you with Taco Bell nor wants to smell your hairy armpits while clamping their nipples) and – b- not ugly, it is like a Kinder Surprise. You’re happy to get one, still a mystery what is inside.
The other day I finally got to write with a really cute actor from Deutsches Theater. Very exciting, as he didn’t want to buy me and had a beard (equals superhot, yes). Suddenly he goes ‘Lust auf Kaffee morgen‘ and here I go squirting a long ass Mateusz style answer in his face, needy, desperate, pathetic. You know those moments when someone suggest something you really wanted and you answer ‘Yes‘ too quickly? Well multiply it by ten. Totally lost it. Explaining how long and why I work and proposing alternative time, naturally also including my telephone number, height, weight, number of fingers, colors of my bedroom walls and almost social security number. Not until the dude writes back ‘Luft noch‘ half an hour later (no need to be fluent in German to realize this means ‘Calm your faggoty ass down‘ ) did I slap myself with an imaginary frying pan and promised, again, to keep it together. Jesus Almighty. I will die alone eaten by my fifteen cats and it is going to be my fault. I feel like Bridget Jones, although my Daniel Cleaver seems to have given up already!

The Counselor and pulsating appendicitis

As I was lying flat, greatly tormented in the sultry room of the post-operative unit of the biggest hospital my ass ever landed in, my never-a-let-down friend called up and asked if I felt like watching a movie. Well, hell yeah I thought, but then it dawned on me how bananas she must have gotten to sacrifice her first sunny and warm Friday. It was the last day of my post-surgical care, I was actually almost mobile and mentally very ready to sashay away home (literally!) and starting to get tremendously depressed from all the crippled ambience. A movie – good or bad – would just be the perfect distractor and – most importantly – a killer for extremely slowly passing time.

As Irene reached into her big red furry box and pulled out a DVD, I only managed to catch a glimpse of the cover that shouted ‘The Counselor’ with Cameron Diaz among the cast. There are those moments, when your prejudice just does it all. Nope, no matter how long and untiringly you keep on trying to convince me, I know – for all it’s worth – it is a movie featuring a undeniably blond dumb bitch on at-least-twenty-inch high heels with a ridiculous skirt short enough to uncover her Brazilian. Embarrassing jokes interspersed with tacky love scenes (preferentially with some actor made of abs, handsome face and a dick bigger than the Fernsehturm in Berlin) and overall feeling of a roaring moral hangover once (if at all) you are done with it.

Well, wasn’t I wrong! Not only does Madame Diaz manage to lasciviously allure, virtuously emanate the queen bitch she acts and paralyze with her glance, she also makes me gag on all her looks! She is serving some bad ass ghetto queen surely equipped with a personal stylist, because some of her outfits look simply damn cool.

That is actually the best of what I got from The Counselor. I think the movie counts well among stories about thug lives of Mexican cartels and offers some yet another kinky ways to kill a man you ‘dislike’. It creates a very unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty, so very typical for movies about sex, blood, money and drugs (mainly because you never know when your favorite character is going to lose their next finger). All in all a semi-interesting plot with a very well executed roles of all characters (and obviously – stunning Cameron!). She definitely should get an award of some sort – maybe not for the overall role, but for (thumbs up) breaking up with the fossilized blond skank characters she slipped into.

The impression may of course well account for the fact that the process of watching the movie was interrupted several times by my phone announcing a new batch of incoming Whatsapp messages from my forever worried mum or unnaturally long and awkward gurgling of my freshly slaughtered belly.