Here's What Happens to Your Brain During a Break-Up

June 23rd 2017

Willie Burnley Jr.

Scientists have begun to catch up with what the heart has known all along: love hurts.

At least that's what researchers at Columbia University found in 2011 after conducting brain scans of people involved in unwanted break-ups in the last six months.

According to the study, participants' brains lit up in the same places when shown pictures of ex-partners as they did when exposed to the pain of a hot probe on the arm. Those areas of the brain did not light up when these same individuals saw pictures of their friends.

"These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain,” Ethan Kross, an associate professor at University of Michigan who helped conduct the study, told University of Michigan News in 2011.

This is only one of the many findings that scientists have found related to how our brains experience a break-up.

To fully comprehend this reaction, or what scientists call our reaction to “social rejection,” it is important to understand how our brains respond to falling in love.

“The most distinct neurobiological aspect of early stages of love is the intense activation of the classic reward pathways,” Jarred Younger, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told ATTN:.

The activation of these pathways release dopamine in our brain that can lead to feelings of euphoria, motivation, mood increase, and heightened senses.

There is already reason to believe that the natural release of dopamine associated with love may serve an evolutionary function.

“This is the same [reward] pathway that is activated when any mammal does something critical for survival or reproduction. It is designed to reward and reinforce us so we do things critical for the survival of the species,” Younger said.

Because freshly separated couples are harder to pin down for studies, there is less research into what the brain experiences while a break-up is occurring compared to those who've had six months to recover. However, in addition to studies that indicate an experience similar to physical pain, there are things we do know about the our body’s reaction to social rejection, including a reduction in the production of dopamine

Younger noted that this reaction does not appear in immediate social rejection, as someone would experience if they asked someone out and were turned down, with the exception of when someone builds up a potential relationship in their mind for weeks or months in advance.

“[Break-ups] may slow or almost stop producing any dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which would be experienced as a great loss and something very bad for the individual,” Younger said.