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Rutgers professor helps unlock how brain handles romantic rejection

brokenheart_optBY JOE TYRRELL
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

If love is a drug, rejection launches its own cravings, according to a new study of brain chemistry.

"Love is a powerful addiction that's perfectly wonderful when it's going well, and perfectly horrible when it's going wrong," said Rutgers research professor Helen Fisher.

With Lucy L. Brown of Yeshiva College of Medicine, Fisher authored the new study using functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at brain activity in 15 college students responding to romantic rejection.

Their findings, being published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, demonstrate clearly why reactions to romantic disappointment can be so hard to control and overcome.

"We've found that when you're rejected in love, parts of the brain associated with profound cocaine addiction are activated ... and with nicotine addiction," said Fisher, an anthropologist and author sometimes called "the love doctor" after her research focus.

"I've been studying romantic love for about 35 years now," along with its partners, the sex drive and feelings of secure attachment, Fisher said.

Her previous brain studies, though, tended more toward hearts and flowers: people newly in love, or couples in their 50s who had been together for an average of 21 years.

Across eras, cultures and ages, though, all those movies, operas, novels, songs and poems have a common thread, Fisher said, the majority deal with love's unfortunate side effects of rejection, mischance, depression and violence.

The researches see their findings as "a first step" toward helping those unlucky in love deal with what has happened and avoid suicide, homicide, debilitating depression and other consequences. One way is to transcend the transcendent.

"We tend to want to characterize romantic love as something supernatural, somehow outside of us and beyond our grasp," Fisher said. "And yet there's brain chemistry going on in whatever we do or feel."

Even knowing that, "it was difficult putting the students in the study into that (MRI) machine, Fisher said. "They were in bad shape, they were really suffering."

A mix of male and female heterosexuals, all described themselves as having been jilted, but still intensely "in love" with their former partners. They were studied as they looked at photos of their lost loves, at "neutral" people such as friends of roommates, and performing simple tasks like counting backward by sevens.

Observing the brain scans, the researchers found several key areas were more stimulated when the participants looked at photos of their former partners:

  • the ventral tegmental area in the mid-brain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in feelings of romantic love,
  • the nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, which are associated with craving and addiction, specifically the dopaminergic reward system evident in cocaine addiction, and
  • the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate, which are associated with physical pain and distress.

So the poetic language of the pain of rejection can have an actual parallel in brain processes, where it literally hurts, according to the researchers.

The study also concludes "the passion of 'romantic' love is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion." In trying to maintain a lost connection, the spurned lovers may have fallen into "a strong survival system that appears to be the basis of many addictions."

Fisher has some succinct advice to the lovelorn: get away and get out.

"Don't send cards, don't send letters, don't try to be friends," she said.

Talking things out with others, whether friends or professional counselors can be helpful. But there is a limit, and it often breaks along gender lines, according to Fisher.

"If anything, women tend to talk about it too much," using that as another strategy to reinforce attachment to their exes, she said. "Men drive too fast, drink too much, hole up and watch television."

But dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure, pain and addictions, has many potential stimulants, from mental problem solving to making new acquaintances, she said.

"Go out with new people," she said. "Or get a message for calmness."

Even among the students in the study, Fisher and Brown found cause for hope.

Their break-ups had occurred at various times an average of 63 days before the start of the project. But the longer since the event, the less effect could be seen from the brain scans. Moreover, the MRIs showed the effects of their efforts to cope, Fisher said.

"In looking at the photo of the person who was rejecting them, their MRIs also showed activity in the areas of decision-making, evaluating, adjustment," she said. "The brain was working to sort this thing out, so they could move on."

Joe Tyrrell may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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