One moment you’re in love, then the next they’re gone. You’re in anguish. You’re tired, but can’t sleep. You tell all your friends about how horrible your partner was, then the next moment you’re trying to win them back. Anyone who’s been through a bad breakup will tell you about the madness and grief involved, but almost none of us can say exactly why a breakup pushes us to our psychological limits.
To find some answers, we chatted with biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher about her work studying the science of love. Dr. Fisher is a senior research fellow with the Kinsey Institute and author of “Anatomy of Love.” Dr. Fisher has over four decades of research in the field of relationship patterning and the science of love, which makes her an expert on what happens to our brains when we’re in love and during a breakup.
The Lover’s Brain
To understand what happens to our brain during a breakup, we have to understand what happens to our brains when we’re in love. Whether you’re a swooner or obsessed with love there are three major brain regions that control us when we’re impassioned by a romantic partner: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, and the ventral pallidum.
1. The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)
“The ventral tegmental area is a little factory at the base of the brain that actually makes dopamine and sends dopamine to many brain regions, giving you the energy and focus to win this person or win this person back,” explains Fisher.
Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter in your brain associated with happiness and that high flying feeling. This “dopamine factory” is a small region located at the center bottom of your brain and produces the energy, focus, and motivation you feel when you fall hard in love. If you’re the type to scribble syrupy love poems in your notebook or see visions of your partner everywhere you look, you can thank your VTA for that.
2. The Nucleus Accumbens
“[The nucleus accumbens] region becomes active with all of the substance addictions and all of the behavioral addictions,” says Fisher. “It also becomes active with romantic love. So we’ve been able to prove that romantic love can be a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, because that same brain region, the nucleus accumbens, is active when you’re madly and happily in love, but it’s really accentuated when you’ve been rejected in love.”
Yikes. So the same brain region that’s responsible for a cocaine or gambling addiction is also responsible for your connection to your partner..
3. The Ventral Pallidum
This last little brain region is a tiny kernel-sized region located under the nucleus accumbens towards the front bottom of the brain. This region is associated with feelings of attachment to a partner that builds over time. The ventral pallidum is like the clause of a contract that seals the deal and locks it in for the long-term.
The Breakup Brain
The VTA, the nucleus accumbens, and ventral pallidum form a strong biological system to keep you and your partner attached. It’s a left-right-left combo to get you excited, hooked, and coming back for more. When we’re fully committed to a relationship, our brain chemistry shifts and we reorder our lives for our lovers. We become different on a very fundamental level, making it all the more painful when our partner leaves us.
When we’re rejected romantically our system is disrupted and we’re left to pick up the pieces. There are two phases to the break up process: protest and despair. If they sound dramatic, it’s because it is.
Dr. Fisher has studied breakups through fMRI scans, ethnographic studies of various cultures, poetry, UN demographic documents, and endless amount of psychological studies, and, surprise, the data is conclusive—heartbreak is a cross-cultural phenomenon, dating back millions of years.
1. The Protest Phase
“You just try harder to win the person back. You may get angry and say you’ll never see the person again, but an hour later you’ll be call them back to work it out,” says Fisher. “You have even higher energy, focus, and motivation than when you first fall happily in love. You’ll try to seduce them, you’ll try to make your partner jealous by going out with other people, you’ll try to sit down and talk about it. You’ll try to change yourself in various ways.”
Sound familiar? Protest is basically what it sounds like—you’re trying to fight the decision of the breakup. When a lover leaves us our life is disturbed, our attachment is broken, and the source of our addiction is cut off. This is the stage when we’re actively trying to overturn the decision of that breakup.
2. The Despair Phase
“During this resignation stage your energy falls,” explains Fisher, “You just lie around, lethargic and depressed. It’s a little bit like what happens if you take a baby puppy away from its mother and put it by itself in the kitchen.”
This is the phase where we usually start polishing pints of ice cream. We watch reruns on Netflix. Sometimes daily grooming can seem like a major effort. Our friends start to worry about us. Remember the nucleus accumbens? Well, that little addiction center is triggering a withdrawal.
If you’re going through a breakup, it’s like a form of temporary insanity. We’re not ourselves, but the science says that’s how it’s supposed to be. Feeling pain, sadness, and withdrawal is part of the process of moving on. But once you understand that love madness and love sadness are built deep into our biology in a way that isn’t exactly in our control, you can feel a little bit better about how you feel. In many ways, love is an addiction and a breakup is a forced intervention. The pain is real, but it’s part of the process.
Like substance or behavioral addiction, recovery from a bad breakup takes time. Let’s take it as we can, one breath at a time.