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Everybody knows that breaking up is hard to do. Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) can now give us a physical explanation as to why.
Romantic attachments change our lives in many ways, not the least of which is giving us a sense of safety and security. Seven scientists at UCLA investigated whether having a love interest serves as a signal that activates parts of the brain that make us feel safe during a threat the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPFC.
The scientists recruited women in long-term romantic relationships to receive brain scans while they were looking at a photo of their partners or of a stranger or an object and also receiving a pain stimulus. The researchers observed that when women were looking at a picture of their partners, the pain stimulus resulted in lower self-reported ratings of pain. Their brain scans showed greater activity in the VMPFC, the part of the brain that generates feelings of safety and security, and less activity in the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, parts of the brain that generate perceptions of pain.

The longer the women had been with their partners and the more supportive they regarded their partners, the more active the pain-protective part of the brain was during the experiment, and the lower the women's ratings of pain. But does it have to be a lover who protects us from pain? And what is the effect of those first few months of being in love? Scientists at Stanford University in northern California recruited women who were in the first nine months of romantic relationships to participate in a similar experiment. The women received brain scans while they were viewing a photo of their romantic partner, a photo of a good friend, and while they were doing a word puzzle. The women were exposed to painful heat in all three conditions.

The brain scans showed that looking at a photo of a lover or a good friend or even just doing a word puzzle reduced pain reception. Looking at a  photo of a lover, however, did more than just distract the brain from pain. It activated the amygdala, the caudate head, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, all regions of the brain that process sensations of reward. Looking at the photo of a life partner not only reduced the sensation of pain but also increased the sensation of reward. A reaction of "life is worth living," the Stanford experiment showed, seems to be generated by romantic attachments, at least during the first few months.

The Stanford researchers also found that new romantic attachments activated some of the same parts of the brain that are activated when women eat chocolate, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. This finding explains how "sweets for my sweet" reinforces romantic love. However, romantic love also activates reward centers of the brain that are not activated by any other kind of desirable stimulus, such as the bilateral caudate nucleus and the bilateral hippocampus.

All of this brain science seems to confirm what we already knew. Love reduces pain. Love is just as good (or maybe even better) than chocolate. But what about breakups and pain? Does science confirm that breakups cause pain? Is there way to make them less painful?

Pain in the Brain After a Breakup

After several studies showed that romantic love had a beneficial effect on pain perception in the brain, scientists started looking for proof that romantic breakups had a detrimental effect on pain perception in the brain. Researchers at Columbia University in New York City decided to study pain after rejection in a big way.
The researchers explained their idea in terms of relative pain. Which is worse, the scientists asked, spilling hot coffee on your arm or having to remember romantic rejection? The Columbia University researchers devised an experiment to find an answer to this question in a very literal way.

The researchers put ads on Craiglist and Facebook and distributed fliers in Manhattan soliciting study participants who had experienced an unwanted romantic breakup in the last six months. The 40 female volunteers were shown photos of their ex or of a friend while receiving MRI scans. They were asked to recall the moment of rejection with their ex, or their happiest recent interaction with their friend. They were also given psychological tests to measure  

Some of the findings of the study in Manhattan were not exactly earth shattering. Pain perception was greater from hot probes than from warm probes. Pain perception was greater when volunteers work thinking about their breakups than when they were thinking about happy interactions with friends.

However, the MRI scans revealed an important new understanding about the pain of romantic breakups. Both the hot probe and thinking about an ex activated the same four areas of the brain that are involved in pain perception, the thalamus, the operculo-insular region, the dorsal anterior cingulate region, and the anterior insula.

What do these findings mean? In practical terms, the neuroscientists have shown in objective terms that:

  • Romantic breakups are experienced as physical pain.
  • Romantic breakups also increase sensitivity to actual physical pain. It takes less of a physical injury to experience pain.
  • Women of all cultural backgrounds experience pain after romantic breakups.
  • Some women have brain chemistry or biology that makes them especially sensitive to the pain of romantic breakups.
  • Women can experience heightened brain activity related to pain when they observe pain in others or they hear about romantic breakups in other women.
  • Negative social encounters of all kinds lower the threshold for both physical and emotional pain.
So, what can scientists tell us about how women can avoid emotional pain after a romantic breakup? The best advice they have for women right now is that it probably helps, in terms of how the brain works, to learn to see the ex as "in the distance." The more women put their relationships behind them, the less they hurt.

That's not a profound insight, either. But what the research does tell us is that the pain of romantic breakup is real, and just as worthy of care and concern as physical injury. It is important to avoid even mildly negative social encounters after a big breakup because they increase sensitivity to both physical and emotional pain.
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