The Science of Heartbreak | Cultural Trendz | Scoop.it

"It's not you," said Julia.

"The timing, well, it's just that the timing..."

I don't remember all the banality that followed, clichés stutter-stepping through the lips of a person I'd known so intimately the day before. I felt numb and dissociated. Like when I'd been in a car wreck as a boy, I understood only that something awful had just blindsided me.

Julia fled the restaurant right after her coup de grace. It was Valentine's Day, and the place was jammed with celebrating couples. Eventually, I managed to stand up. I moved outside and wandered the streets for hours in a fugue state fueled by shock.

We had first met nearly a year before at a public lecture on the novels of D.H. Lawrence. The finer points of Women in Love escaped me entirely, so distracted was I by the high cheekbones, gray eyes, long, blond hair in a French twist, the figure both voluptuous and athletic. Her beauty seized me and would not let go.

With my previous girlfriends, sex had been exhilarating recreation, as fun as a high-speed water slide. Alas, the thrills always seemed to wane as I grew accustomed to the curves of the course. This did not happen with Julia. Sometime around our 6-month mark, it dawned on me: We'd stopped having sex and begun making love, a distinction that had previously seemed like something fabricated by relationship "experts."

As we neared our first anniversary, I found myself bonded in ways I'd never felt with another human being. Julia was the smartest, most fascinating woman I'd ever met. She made me feel that I was intelligent, witty, attractive, worthy -- in short, one of life's winners.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine a better setup for a crash.

Over the past decade, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and pharmaceutical researchers alike have begun to shed fascinating new light on heartbreak. The forces that bind two people in union are powerful, but love's dissolution is more potent still -- a trauma to the brain and body that in some cases can be all but indistinguishable from mental illness.

For example, in a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that of 114 Americans who had been romantically rejected in the 8 weeks prior to the study, 40 percent remained clinically depressed -- 12 percent moderately to severely so.

"A heart broken from love lost rates among the most stressful life events a person can experience," says David Buss, Ph.D., the author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. "It's exceeded in psychological pain only by horrific events, such as the loss of a child."

The end of a long-term relationship can be extraordinarily traumatic, especially for a man whose mate cheats on him, suddenly announces she wants a divorce, or dies. Researchers have discovered that the flood of stress hormones accompanying such events can weaken the heart, one reason laymen and clinicians alike have dubbed the phenomenon Broken Heart Syndrome.

But even when the heart is not literally broken, heartbreak can still prove lethal in other ways. Rejected men kill themselves at three to four times the rate that spurned women do. And the mix of grief and alcohol almost certainly dispatches a legion more men through car crashes, fights, and assorted misadventures, even though they aren't called suicides on death certificates.

So why does heartbreak hurt so badly? To answer that, you have to first understand what you're really losing.

Go on to the next page to understand the dynamic of lust, attraction, and attachment...

Of lust, attraction, and attachment
Love may seem like a solitary force, but experts now know that at least three drives goad our urge to mate. Each of these largely independent puppet masters steers our actions through various neurotransmitters and pathways in the brain.

The most primitive of these drives is lust, which propels us to seek sex with a range of partners. Lust is fueled mainly by testosterone in men and women alike. Scanning with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has pinpointed two brain regions strongly associated with this hormone of horniness: the hypothalamus, deep in our ancient "reptilian" brain, and the nearby amygdala, a key to the processing and memory of strong emotions.

The second and arguably more potent of our reproductive drives is known simply as "attraction" in birds and mammals, and "romantic love" in humans. Unlike lust's procreate-with-everyone approach, romantic love is a system that focuses our energies intensively and selectively on a preferred mate. It's what we feel, in other words, when we meet "the one" and become determined to win her heart. From an evolutionary perspective, it's a highly adaptive drive that keeps our eyes on the prize and prevents us from squandering time and resources on suboptimal prospects.

Neuroimaging studies of men and women who are "madly in love" reveal significantly elevated activity in the brain area known as the ventral tegmental area, or VTA. "This is a very primitive part of the brain that appeared quite early in our evolution," says Lucy Brown, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York. Cells in the VTA make and distribute dopamine, a neurotransmitter critical to motivation and reward. Dopamine drives us to look for food, water, sex, and love -- and when our search pays off, it rewards us. "Dopamine," says Brown, "seems to convey a basic message when love is requited: 'This is good,' it tells us. 'This is a key to our survival.'"

Our third system is called "attachment" in animals, and "companionate love" in humans. Though arguably less flamboyant than the other two, this drive is critical in cementing the bonds vital to cooperative parental care. In fairy tales, attachment is the "happily ever after" part; in real life, it often unravels after the kids are raised.

Attachment is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a gradual process that appears to be likely facilitated by two other hormones that flood the brain during intimacy: oxytocin, dubbed the "cuddle compound," and vasopressin, a tension-taming peptide that thus far has no catchy nickname.

In an attempt to clarify what happens when attachment is broken, Todd Ahern, Ph.D.(c), a neuroscience researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, examined the impact of sudden mate removal on the behavior of the male prairie vole, a highly social rodent known to form monogamous bonds. "Males who were able to stay with their female partners showed no problems on standard tests we use as models for depression," he says. "But the males whose honeys were plucked away performed much worse." When the heartbroken voles were given a drug that counteracts a potent stress hormone, their performance normalized. The voles that were allowed to keep their mates, on the other hand, showed no benefits from this drug. The emerging hypothesis, Ahern says, is that separation's effects are twofold: It leaves males bereft of stress-relieving compounds -- like oxytocin -- and spikes their level of stress hormones. The result is heartbreak and, in some cases, depression.

As intriguing as such new discoveries are, researchers concede they are just beginning to fathom the shifting interplay of genes, brain chemicals, and neural pathways involved. "Love is a bouillabaisse in the brain," says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and a preeminent researcher in the biology of love, "and we're not even close to knowing everything that goes into the soup."

Perhaps if Julia had rejected me earlier or later on in the relationship, my heartbreak might have taken a different form. All I know is that the ingredients in my own brain soup were bubbling on high boil the day she dumped the cauldron in my lap.

Go on to the next page for more on the science of heartbreak...

In the days, weeks, and months following my St. Valentine's Day massacre, it's hard to say what hurt more. Moodwise, a persistent despondency alternated with sharp spikes of anxiety, a tag team that made it all but impossible for me to sleep or eat. Providing running commentary on these feelings was a nonstop flood of intrusive thoughts and images that assaulted me both day and night.

When scenes of Julia fornicating with